DeCock: Why hockey can't get a labor deal done

ldecock@newsobserver.comSeptember 11, 2012 

The clock is ticking on hockey, with the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement with the NHL Players’ Association expiring just before midnight Saturday and no settlement on the horizon.

A few hundred players will meet in New York on Wednesday and Thursday, while the NHL’s Board of Governors will convene there Thursday, but both gatherings appear to be more about rallying the base than finding common ground.

The question on everybody’s mind is the same: Why can’t the two sides figure out a way to divide up $3.3 billion?

Doesn’t seem that hard, does it? And it doesn’t feel like the game is that broken, either, not like in 2004, when it was clear some kind of significant change was needed. Now, after eight years of record revenue, the game’s hanging in there – a nip and a tuck, sure, but there’s no call for reconstructive surgery.

So far, that’s what the owners are proposing: Massive salary cuts both to existing contracts and in the future, stringent restrictions on free agency, changes to the definition of revenue so there’s less for the players even before they get their share, and more.

There are some legitimate concerns here. Players coming off rookie contracts have far too much leverage and are throwing the salary scale out of whack. Capital investments generate revenue but don’t count as expenses, discouraging long-term thinking. The loopholes allowing front-loaded, long-term contracts need to be closed.

If that were all the owners wanted, a deal would be done. But their actions so far – and commissioner Gary Bettman, while unpopular among fans, is merely doing the bidding of powerful owners like the Boston Bruins’ Jeremy Jacobs and the Philadelphia Flyers’ Ed Snider – suggest they liked where sitting out a year got them last time and they’re willing to do it again.

The players, meanwhile, have their sore spots as well. After accepting a salary cap and pay cuts last time around, they’re particularly sensitive about any deal that negatively impacts the existing contracts owners have kept offering throughout the summer, whether through an across-the-board rollback or escrow.

(Escrow, which the players hate, is a percentage of each paycheck withheld to make sure salaries fall at exactly the 57 percent mark, since total team payrolls can fall above or below that number. The NHL’s proposals would use massive escrow deductions to get the total player share below 50 percent without actually rewriting existing contracts.)

Just as they took a stand (and lost) against a salary cap eight years ago, the players look like they’re going to take a stand on existing contracts this time around, especially after being told they were “partners” whilst agreeing to the owners’ demands in the last CBA.

As for revenue-sharing, a hot-button issue, both sides agree there needs to be more, they just don’t agree where it should come from. The players think the richest owners should prop up their smaller-market brethren. The owners want to generate it from the savings created by reducing the players’ share of revenue. And around and around they go.

If the owners were willing to guarantee the value of existing contracts and phase in a reduced share of player revenue over the next few years, and if the rich franchises were willing to help some of the smaller ones, and the players were willing to take less money going forward while restructuring some aspects of the contract system, a deal could get done this weekend that benefits everyone – players, owners and, most notably, the regular people who make a living off the game, the same people no one is thinking about.

There’s plenty of money to go around. Sort it out and let the rest of us get back to watching hockey.

DeCock:, Twitter: @LukeDeCock, (919) 829-8947

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