Is the NHL staring another labour stoppage in the face?

Will there be an NHL season starting in the fall of 2012? Or will there not be an NHL season starting in the fall of 2012?

While there have been no official, for-the-record contacts between the league and its players’ association (NHLPA) yet, this is bound to change by the time the All-Star Game rolls by, Sunday, January 29, in Ottawa.

Between now and then, there have been unmistakable signs that the path to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) is going to be wet from all that blood, sweat and tears both sides are going to pour.

It remains to be seen whether the fans will have a reason to cry or rejoice. The former seems more likely.

The first sign: the NHLPA is of the view the time has come to change the competition committee, one of the babies conceived during the last lockout. How precisely would you imagine it? came a polite enquiry from the league. If there was an answer, it must have been lost in the mail.

But there are issues that will be terribly difficult to overcome, and it’s tough to predict now whether there could be any compromise on any of them.

The NHLPA keenly watches what their basketball brethren, a.k.a. NBAPA, are doing. Having refused a 50-50 split in basketball-related revenue as the basis to calculate salary caps, the NBAPA is seriously looking to disband so its members are free to sue the league for breaking the anti-trust legislation. They may have a point there, except, if they do this, it would be a perfectly stinking hypocrisy: if a player wants to join the NBA, he’s got to be a member of the NBAPA in good standing. Is that monopolist or is that monopolist?

Do the NBA players actually care for their fans?

Still, the NHLPA is in permanent contact with the basketball unionists, keeping close tabs on developments there. Are they doing it just out of sheer pleasure of learning?

The NHL can make a very good case for itself by saying that, while, overall, league hockey-related revenues having been going up, the number of teams in dire straights has been increasing, too. Atlanta’s gone, Phoenix is close to going, Columbus is bleeding not only on the ice, both Florida teams are giving tickets away for free and counting days until Canadian retirees drop by for their regular winter holidays so they can at least sell some of the tickets, Minnesota isn’t too healthy, Dallas is hoping its new owner will be willing to invest, expecting at least some return, and the three California teams aren’t prime examples of economic health, either.

Of course, the logical reply would be: well then, why did you put those teams in such inhospitable areas in the first place? That it helped increase NHLPA’s membership? So what? It also brought cash in admittance fees to the existing owners.

The players are perfectly livid about the so-called escrow account into which they have to contribute a certain percentage of their salaries, just in case the NHL (or one of its teams) is sinking. Sure, they get some of the money back a season later, but they can’t help it: they just can’t understand why players’ contributions should be keeping alive clubs that shouldn’t have been born at all. That’s their view, and there’s something to it. So far as players are concerned, if the league has expanded the way it has, it should be the league who improves upon the system of revenue sharing, not the players.

The league, on the other hand, is of the view that the players have got it made, and that they’ve got it made on the backs of their poor employers. The players’ salaries are eating more than 54 per cent of the league’s hockey-related revenue, and that’s really altogether too much to swallow, quite a few of the owners say. To open the negotiations, they would be willing to offer a split that would see 47 per cent going to the players, the rest to them. Fat chance, of course, but that’s what you’ve got negotiations for: at the end, they would agree on a 50-50 split, giving everyone a chance to feel the pain of compromising, and share it.

Here’s a theory of games and economic behaviour element that comes into play. There is a recognized dictum amongst professional police officers that once a person murders somebody, that murderer finds it much easier to pull the trigger again, next time. This kind of behavioural pattern has a Latin name in which precedent plays a major role. We had a lockout just a few years ago, and the NHL survived. A precedent if there ever was one.

Another sore point: NHL owners just hate the fact their players have got guaranteed contracts. The NFL model (no guarantees, and if we don’t like you, tough sledding, Bubba) would make them feel much better. Who wants to wager on the players giving guaranteed contracts up? The owners can try to offer a sweetener: fine, your contracts, including no-trade or no-move clauses, will be guaranteed. To a degree. Once a player asks for a trade, though, the no-trade or no-move clause gets waived, and the player will go where the team finds a trade partner who suits the team, rather than the player. Can you see THIS happening?

Accepted wisdom has it that the forthcoming CBA negotiations will be tougher than what we had experienced in 2004. Why? Because NHLPA’s executive director Donald Fehr’s record says so.

It, of course, says no such thing. Yes, Donald Fehr was instrumental in several labour stoppages when a Major Baseball union Pooh-Bah, that’s true. But those were different times, a different game, different league issues, different owners. The fact it had been about a Collective Bargaining Agreement just as it is now is the only feature these situations have in common.

Donald Fehr must be aware, just as any major professional sports league should be, that the demographics of fandom have been changing rapidly in the last few years, and that the change has been resembling a downward spiral more than anything else. Reasons for this trend have been varied, and none of them, at least thus far, described as paramount. Randomly speaking, you can define those reasons as signs of general economic malaise worldwide and, consequently, lower disposable incomes amongst potential fans. Scientists have also observed that in the era of new media in general and social media in particular, younger generations’ interests have veered away from passive participation in professional sports. Some case studies also indicate that an increasing number of members of the general population are positively angry about top professional athletes’ remuneration demands. Descriptions of animals linked to words that describe greed have become norm rather than exceptions. Professional sports franchise owners who demand taxpayer participation in building new facilities for their clubs have been increasingly becoming objects for ridicule.

To sum up: times have changed. Professional sports might become (nobody says “will become,” not yet, anyhow) relics of the past before the first three decades of this century are gone.

So, if Donald Fehr plans to intimidate the NHL, and the owners let him, both sides will be stepping on an unmarked minefield.

Let’s hope they are smart enough NOT to do it. But let’s not mortgage our homes on it, either.

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