In case you weren’t depressed enough with the Sabres missing the playoffs, how would you feel if the next NHL season didn’t start on time? What if there wasn’t a 2012-2013 season at all? From the league that scrapped an entire season due to a lockout, will we get Labor Armageddon Part Two?
The current Collective Bargaining Agreement which ended the season long lockout in 2005 is set to expire on September 15. To this point it appears no substantive talks have been held although NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman doesn’t appear to be concerned.
“I’m not worried” Bettman said during last month’s General Manager meetings. “Whatever will be, will be. The fact is when the Union is ready to negotiate, we’ll sit down. I’m not particularly concerned about the timeline.” The Commissioner told teams to conduct “business as usual”and operate going forward according to the current agreement.
The NHL Players Association is under new leadership with former baseball Union Chief Donald Fehr taking over and Bettman says when the Union completes its due diligence, the talks will likely begin. The NHLPA recently requested financial information from the league and they are currently reviewing that information.
“We are continuing to meet with players across the league as part of our preparations for the upcoming CBA negotiations” the NHLPA said in a recently released statement. “While we do not have a set date for formal negotiations to begin, we expect negotiations will begin when we have players available to participate in bargaining sessions.”
As far as how smoothly or how badly these talks could go, no one knows but keep in mind the NHL is in MUCH better financial shape than it was prior to the 2004-05 lockout. The league also won a number of battles back then with the biggest being the advent of a salary cap.
But management will still be looking to enhance its own bottom line and they will likely attempt to follow the lead of their NFL and NBA brethren. Both of those leagues had work stoppages of their own after the expiration of their most recent CBA’s and both were successful in reducing the amount of revenue players receive.
NHL revenues, which have increased in the post lockout years, reportedly are in the neighborhood of three billion dollars and the players share is 57%. Many expect the NHL will attempt to reduce the players share closer to the 50% level that is now the rule in the NFL and NBA. That discussion could get ugly.
“I’d like to think, compared to the other sports, we’ve already made our concessions” Sabres goalie Ryan Miller said when asked about the CBA during locker clean out day earlier this month. “I’m sure they’ll take a crack at it. Why not, everyone else did. Football, basketball, it’s a business and you can’t fault anybody for trying.”
Miller says there is a lot of positive energy about the sport because they have made great strides post lockout and this is not the time for NHL to shut down for any amount of time. “The NHL’s making a record amount of money. They’re very successful in a lot of areas. The last thing they need to do is have some sort of work stoppage. We can’t alienate them(fans), we can’t have a disagreement at this point in time” Miller added. “It’s up to the NHL and NHLPA to just get it right, just do it the right way.”
Even though Bettman told clubs to operate “business as usual” and Sabres President Ted Black told WGR that is exactly what the Sabres will do, there is already one casualty to the labor uncertainty. The NHL has cancelled the season opening games in Europe. This marks the first time since 2007 that teams won’t begin the campaign overseas. As many as six teams have gone over in the past including the Sabres who played in Finland and Germany last October.
The entry draft, scheduled for June 22-23 in Pittsburgh will go on as scheduled as will free agency which will commence on July 1. As of now the salary cap is around $64 million but it could go up before the free agency signing period opens.
According to Capgeek.com the Sabres cap number for next season is just under $58 million with 18 players under contract. However it is possible the cap number could go up before July 1 and then come down depending on the rules of the new CBA. The NHL could put transition rules in place to help teams manage their way through that scenario.
In addition to the percentage of revenue given to the players, other CBA issues are expected to include the entry level system which sees players sign three year contracts upon entering the NHL. There is a faction of management which would like to see the length extended to four or five years.
Owners might also be looking for some changes to arbitration rights and getting more control of their salary management through those systems. While you’d think the revenue percentage would be the biggest point of contention, there are reports suggesting the entry level contracts and arbitration rights will be the deal breakers for some.
The two sides might also talk about realignment and the playoff format. The league announced changes to both last December but quickly terminated the plan to put those in place next season once the NHLPA complained. That whole issue degenerated into a “he said, she said” series of stories and it could be an omen of things to come.
Scott Burnside of ESPN.com reported the players association has always believed the “partnership” that came out of the previous work stoppage is on many levels “a farce”. Players feel they have been excluded in various important discussions including franchise relocation and expansion.
There are some who believe the objections raised by the players was Don Fehr’s way of telling both management and his own constituents, the players, that there is a new leader in town who has quite a bit of experience running a powerful players association. The NHLPA has gone through multiple leaders and a considerable amount of internal turmoil since losing to the owners seven years ago. Perhaps Fehr was setting the tone even before the realignment issue stare down with the NHL.
In an interview with Yahoo Sports last September, he said “The players made an awful lot of concessions in the last agreement. It’s pretty hard to see them being willing to do that again.” In addition to signing off on a salary cap, the players agreed to a 24% roll back in salaries.
My advice is to enjoy the rest of the playoffs even though the Sabres are mere bystanders because who knows when NHL games will be played again.