No way to defend strong stances
On Aug. 25, 2003, the NHL started its public relations engine.
It assembled a binder called "NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement Backgrounder" and distributed it to members of the media, hoping to bring everyone up to speed on the x's and o's of labor negotiations and prevent false information from being circulated.
The binder contains simple definitions, such as profit sharing, revenue sharing and cost certainty. It has colorful graphs. One illustrates how NHL player costs take up 76 percent of the league's revenues, the most of any of the four major sports. Another compares the 2002-03 season with 1993-94.
Back then, even as I pored over the numbers, I felt like a lockout was so far away. It won't happen, I thought, our game needs to be on the ice. There's plenty of time to make a deal.
I went to the last page of the binder: GOALS AND OBJECTIVES OF NEW CBA SYSTEM
1) Create a strong Player/Ownership partnership based on common objectives to drive the growth of the League to the benefit of all associated with the game including fans, players and owners;
2) Create an economic system where 30 Clubs can ice a competitive team and be stable;
3) Provide outstanding entertainment to the fans at an affordable and competitive price.
So, how are we doing so far?
After Wednesday's meeting, there appeared reason for optimism. My phone was ringing off the hook. I had many conversations with players, former players and media from all over. It looked like the effort made by Trevor Linden to jumpstart talks was going to be worthy of the Hart Trophy. We all applauded his initiative, whether it worked or not. It showed the fight and passion of every hockey player. There were rumors flying about 6- and 8-year agreements that combined the luxury tax and hard cap. The schedule was going to be 36 games and begin around Feb. 15.
By Thursday morning, the optimism began to wane, then disappear all together, as news came back from the meeting in Toronto.
I was back on the phone with players around the league. Not good. They just turned on their computers only to have a very even keeled and professional Trevor Linden give them the news.
That was the response from more than one player. Linden had made it quite clear and said he was taken aback when he was told the players would have no more say in how the NHL is run than auto workers have say over how an auto company is run.
I pulled out the NHL's CBA binder again and turned to the back page:
"Create a strong Player/Owner partnership ..."
So, where do we go from here?
The NHLPA is expecting a final offer from the owners within the next week or so. It will, of course, include a hard individual team salary cap. The NHLPA will turn it down.
The players will try and secure jobs in Europe for the rest of this season, as well as next season, just as Bob Goodenow advised them to do on Jan. 14. There goes the strong working relationship.
In the binder, there is a question that reads: "What if the two parties can't reach an agreement, no matter how hard they try?"
The answer: "There are times when, even after extensive negotiations, an employer and a union are unable to reach an agreement because there are significant issues separating them. This is called an 'impasse.' It is complicated to define (and the National Labor Relations Board would not be involved to resolve any dispute over the issue of whether an impasse has occurred until long after the fact) but has sometimes been called the point at which no more productive negotiations are possible, even though both parties are still approaching negotiations with a good-faith intent to reach an agreement. An impasse is usually not a permanent situation (and can be reached or broken any number of times). Pressure from a strike or lockout or just the passage of time, can break an impasse and make further progress in negotiations possible."
Is that where we are at? It is a touchy subject.
I am sure plenty of players are living off the interest of their savings and not even touching their principle. But there are others that are not so fortunate. Some players are hurting for money. They may be in the minority, but there is pressure to play for that reason. And while many owners say they are losing less money by not playing, I am sure there are other owners who could use the cash flow as well.
Before this last attempt at negotiation, some players were on the phone trying to convince their union representative and other players that the deal they're rejecting won't get any better, no matter how long they wait. The phone calls were made to spearhead a voice to the union leadership, suggesting a private vote to see where the membership stands. Would players accept a cap if it they had a choice? I am sure there are several who would. Still, there are plenty of players who I have talked to who are very much behind the union and believe a hard cap will hurt the game.
Those players wonder if a Sidney Crosby would sign with an NHL club under a cap system or go to Europe and sign a tax-free deal that would pay him more. If a Crosby wants to follow in the path of Wayne Gretzky, my bet is he still joins the NHL -- if, at that time, it is the best hockey league available. It might not be.
The only way a deal can be made at this point is if the players recognize the futility of this fight and force Bob Goodenow and the union to accept the next deal offered. Several players have told me off the record that the cap would be accepted if it was the best offer they received. That would be quite stunning and likely unrealistic if you listen to some of the veterans in the league, like Vincent Damphousse, who is on the negotiating committee. He is encouraging the players to head to Europe.
Veteran hockey people, like Detroit Red Wings senior vice president Jim Devellano, already are saying the season is over.
This is so disappointing. It feels like someone punched me in the gut.
Those of us who go to minor hockey rinks, coach youth hockey, talk to fans and try and sell the game are forced too often into defending it.
How do we defend this?
Darren Pang, a former goaltender with the Chicago Blackhawks, is a hockey analyst for ESPN.
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