A Brief Guide to the NHL Lockout
For hockey fans—of which there are many in and around Boston—these past few months have been torturous. And things aren’t looking up. The NHL lockout continues to drag on, seemingly without an end in sight.
Writer Ryan Lambert, a regular contributor at Yahoo! hockey site Puck Daddy, helps us dissect the impasse. Lambert has many thoughts on the lockout—he’s not just a hockey writer, but a huge hockey fan, too. (These days, he’s even resorted to attending mediocre college games to get his fix.) Read on for a few of his thoughts on the NHL lockout:
So, first: Do you think we’re going to see NHL games this season?
The short answer is, “Yes,” and the slightly longer answer is, “Because they can’t be that stupid, can they?” But the even longer answer than that is, “I’m not totally sure, but I think so.”
When people asked me this question in September and October, I told them I thought the lockout wouldn’t last much longer, and that the league would start again on Black Friday so that the league could properly gear up for the Winter Classic. Obviously that date came and went, and only more acrimony followed. The reason I think there will be a season at all, again, is that no one can possibly be so stupid as to cancel a whole slate twice in eight years. Or at least, I would hope not.
But [commissioner] Gary Bettman has given us plenty of evidence that he has all the appetite in the world for this kind of boobery, so while I say there will be a season, I’m starting to think that’s more on the basis of my personal hope rather than any sort of reality in which we are currently living.
If you were to explain the lockout for someone who’s not well-versed in its particulars, how would you do it?
Basically, the league saw the [collective bargaining agreements] the NFL and NBA got as a result of their lockouts —50/50 revenue splits between players and owners—and said, “Us, too?” The old NHL collective bargaining agreement had it 57/43 for the players, and the salary cap almost doubled in eight years as a result of the game’s hockey-related revenue, growing exactly 50 percent to $3.3 billion.
Also, an ancillary problem—and one which no one on the league side of things seems especially eager to address—is that the revenue sharing system in the NHL flatly sucks. More teams are losing money than making it, at least from an revenue standpoint, and while the league ostensibly would like to add more fiscal certainty for those foundering franchises, it wants that money to come from players, rather than the successful owners’ pockets. A mix of both seems the most sensible.
But I would also say it’s about trying to break the union again. If you’re looking for concessions the players are getting from the owners in exchange for giving up 12 percent of salaries under this deal, you might as well stop. There aren’t any. So successful was the league in bullying former NHLPA boss Bob Goodenow into taking whatever it dictated during the 2004-05 lockout that it figured it could do so again. It seems likely to me that the league figured on another pushover lockout, but [Donald] Fehr’s not a punk like Goodenow was, and seems all too happy to wait this one out. Whether that’s for the long-term good of the game is, I guess, up to you.
How would you fix this thing? Do you have advice for both the owners and players?
The thing you have to keep in mind is that these guys have been so close on this deal since early December that bridging the gaps should be easy. The problem is that because Fehr hasn’t folded to every league CBA demand—which is what the NHL wants: a take-it-or-leave-it deal on its terms only—the warhawk owners and Bettman have grown to personally dislike him.
What separates them now is a slight disparity in how long each side the new CBA should last, a gap of about $100 million in “transition payments” (that is, money in players’ contracts lost due to the lockout), and a few other very minor details that shouldn’t be stretching this as far it has.
The advice I would give both sides, but particularly the owners, is this: Grow up. There was a very palatable deal on the table to end the lockout during one of the NHL’s suggested players-and-owners-only meetings. Bettman and Fehr weren’t allowed. But Ron Hainsey, a Winnipeg Jets defenseman who has been active in CBA dealings from the outset, said the players in those meetings were told that offer was contingent on Fehr not being able to re-enter negotiations at any point. He couldn’t even examine it; they had to take the deal as-is. They, of course, said no. That’s the kind of juvenile dealings you’re looking at here. That’s why there’s no NHL season happening right now.
People—including yourself—have been pretty critical of Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs during the lockout. Why?
We’ve heard through a lot of well-connected people that the majority of teams “driving” this lockout are those that are failing, and it makes sense that this would be the case. If you’re losing money because the salary cap floor is now higher than the original salary cap under the expired CBA, you would want change. But at the front of that howling mass of teams in non-traditional markets is the Calgary Flames’ Murray Edwards, the Minnesota Wild’s Craig Leipold, and Jacobs, who also drove the last lockout.
None of those guys are losing money on their teams despite spending a lot every year on salaries. For instance, according to the invaluable resource CapGeek, the Bruins, Wild, and Flames rank first, second, and fourth in the NHL in cap commitments for the 2012-13 season. They want the cap lower, essentially, so they don’t have to pay as much in player costs so that their profit margins can be wider.
Jacobs comes off as being particularly Montgomery Burnsian, though, because unlike Calgary and Minnesota, his team has flourished under the last CBA, to the point where he was … well, I don’t want to say he was popular, but he wasn’t, like, actively hated any more.
Basically, if it weren’t for Jacobs, who has been cartoonishly evil throughout the process, and the guys who are like him to a lesser extent, this lockout probably wouldn’t be happening. There are a lot more moderate owners (Pittsburgh’s Ron Burkle), or those who are outwardly against the lockout (the New York Rangers’ James Dolan), but they don’t have the reins.
If we get lucky and the debacle ends, how are the Bruins going to be? Are they still a great team without Tim Thomas?
Oh, an actual hockey question. I think they’ll be very, very good again. They still have that strong, young forward corps, they still have arguably the best defense in the league, which would be bolstered by rookie Dougie Hamilton. And as for Thomas, if Tuukka Rask plays like he did in 2009-10 and last year (1.97 GAA/.931 save percentage, and 2.05/.929), they’ll be absolutely fine.
This interview has been edited and condensed.