It’s still my belief we will be playing NHL hockey this season. While my colleague Doug MacLean and I differ on how we achieve CBA harmony, we both agree the 50/50 split is now too close to not get a deal done.
I get there is still work to be done with making contracts “whole” and other systemic issues in the agreement, but to complete a deal soon (this is where Doug and I might differ), I really believe we need more team owners involved. I find it so ironic that eight years after the last lockout, the course of events that eventually sunk former NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow might very well affect Gary Bettman in the same way.
Back in 2004, Goodenow’s small executive board shared only the negotiation information they deemed appropriate to their 750 constituents, not all the vital information. Case in point: the top secret meeting in Niagara Falls between Ted Saskin and Bill Daly where the PA handed the owners a salary cap for the first time. Imagine the looks on the faces of the Bryan McCabes and Scott Walkers who were fighting the good fight mere days before on national TV with “we will never give in to a cap” routine.
Say what you will about Donald Fehr and how he’s set himself for these negotiations, but he appears in much better shape today because of it than Goodenow ever was in 2004. Even with uneducated comments from the likes of Sergei Kostistyn, the transparency within the union has never been better. As of today it appears there are no Trevor Lindens or Ted Saskins within the executive board to turn on him. And if some eventually do decide to turn on Fehr in hope of getting a deal done, they’re going to have to do it looking straight into his eyes, not from behind his back.
Now here we are in 2012 and many whispers we heard about Goodenow in 2004 are now being directed toward Bettman. "Old, tired and paranoid" are just some of the descriptions of Bettman these days. Does the commissioner still have a clear head to get the best deal possible for all 30 owners, or is he too bitter and jaded after close to 20 years on the job to think clearly?
Worse is the perception that only three people control all the power and information when it comes to the future of the NHL, that a new deal hinges solely on Bettman, Bob Batterman (lead counsel for the NHL) and Jeremy Jacobs (Boston Bruins owner and chairman of the NHL board). Everyone else is on the outside looking in when it comes to power in the league.
Ask many NHL owners outside of this small circle and if they answer truthfully they'll tell you they know as much of what's going on as you or me. Some teams will also tell you a two- to three-year slope toward 50/50 split works just fine, and to potentially burn the whole village down in an effort to keep fighting for teams like Phoenix and Florida is just plain wrong. Like McCabe and Walker in 2004, many owners' frustration lies in not having their voice heard when it matters most.
As the Red Wings and Jimmy Devellano found out the hard way, it's okay to be seen, just don't be heard. Even if an owner like Detroit's Mike Ilitch wanted to sit in on negotiations with the PA he wouldn't be allowed. That's a tough pill to swallow considering the financial stake he and all owners have in a $3.3 billion operation.
In 2004, it was understood that all the owners were willing to burn a whole season because they knew exactly what they wanted: a hard salary cap linked to revenues. In 2012, the owners' stance isn't as clear because the wants and needs of each club differ. What's even murkier is 30 teams' willingness to go all the way in achieving whatever Bettman, Batterman and Jacobs think they need to get a CBA win.
With a philosophical agreement of a 50/50 split achieved, more than a handful of teams have told Bettman they can't afford to lose two entire seasons in a span of eight years.
Back in 2004, the owners didn't achieve their goal of a salary cap tied to revenues until well after the Stanley Cup playoffs were cancelled for the first time in history. This is a far cry from where the owners are at this negotiating point today.
From here on in the biggest question may not be the resolve of the players -- as it was in 2004 -- but rather how many owners will continue to sit on the sidelines when they already know they now have a deal on the table they can accept.