With the NHL Draft done, the next big day on the NHL calendar lands this Sunday, when hundreds of players hit the open market as unrestricted free agents. The action provides entertainment for all fans and optimism for some. This year, as GMs once again scramble to sign top players to lucrative deals, July 1 will also serve as a poignant reminder of the issues involved in a looming labour clash that could soon dominate summer hockey talk.
The 2004-05 NHL season was lost, more or less, because owners and the NHLPA couldn’t see eye-to-eye on the issue of a salary cap until after we all went through a Cup-less spring. The parameters are different this time out and while the prevailing sense is losing an entire season is a long shot, the following factors figure to get more-than-sufficient airtime as each side does its share of posturing en route to the negotiation table.
If the salary cap was the buzz term last time out, expect to hear the phrase “per cent of revenues” ad nauseum in the summer of 2012. Recent work stoppages in the NFL and NBA called attention to the fact those leagues dole out a lower percentage of league revenues to its workforce. Presently, 57 per cent of NHL revenues are devoted to player salaries and the league is widely expected to push hard to drive that figure much closer to the 50-per cent mark.
Another difference in the dynamic now versus the last round of negotiations is the man representing the 700-plus NHL players. Don Fehr is, of course, best known for leading the Major League Baseball Players’ Association strike that ultimately forced the cancellation of the 1994 World Series. Fehr is the fourth executive director of the NHLPA since 2004 and — though the ’94 strike is the default attachment to his name — one of the defining characteristics of Fehr as a labour leader is his insistence that as many players as possible become informed on the issues. He’s a staunch believer that he’s merely there to act in the best interest of the association’s members and it’s on them to be engaged in the process.
The salary floor is interesting because it sets up as not just owners vs. players, but owners of small-market teams vs. players and big-market owners. The rich guys who run teams that struggle to generate revenue aren’t crazy about the fact the current CBA mandates they spend a fairly significant minimum amount on salaries. Players like a high floor because it obviously means more money must get thrown around and owners of wealthy teams aren’t anxious to toss dough to their weaker cousins via revenue sharing if they’re not required to at least spend a good chunk of cash themselves.
One of the delicious ironies of CBA negotiations is that after owners and GMs are done binding together to battle the NHLPA, the managers then return to their separate burghs and set about finding ways to circumvent the rules they just fought to institute. The past seven seasons saw the proliferation of contacts with immense term built into them for the purpose of lowering the annual cap hit. For years it’s been suggested that, rather than simply refusing to hand out these deals, owners and GMs will try to mandate a limit on contract terms. Perhaps this becomes a situation where age is a factor — no player over 30 can sign a deal for more than five years, or something to that effect.
Surely the topic of the 2014 Olympics — the players want to go, the owners, not so much — will come up, but it’s nowhere near deal-breaker status.
It’s hard to know if there are any issues simmering beneath the surface that could yet bubble up into sticking points. But for now, there’s enough contentious ground to cover to expect some heated exchanges between the owners and NHLPA throughout the summer.