Custom Search

10 questions and comments about the ongoing NHL lockout:

Several weeks ago, before this mess of a lockout actually came to pass (though it was easy to predict…) I said in this space that I would not be commenting on the proceedings.  Looking back at some of the columns here at VLM over the past couple of months, it would appear that I—though not by design—lied.  I have, in fact, posted on this subject far too much.  I have not followed my own advice with regard to ignoring this entire fiasco.

In fairness, when you write daily about hockey, it’s difficult not to come back to this subject.  Not because we all “need” NHL hockey (we don’t, though unfortunately many individuals and small business people are being damaged financially by the impact of the lockout).  And it’s not that there is necessarily something new or terribly insightful to say about the situation (though posters here have presented some outstanding ideas—and didn’t Sydney Crosby say the other day that he was hoping some new ideas might shine through and break the logjam?).  No, it may simply be that people are drawn to disasters.  And this is an unmitigated disaster, with the two sides on different planets when it comes to how to move forward and share the multi-billion dollar pie.

So without any science or order to this, some all-over-the-map thoughts on where we are - and aren’t -  in this ongoing NHL theatrical production…

  1. As much as I appreciate there has to be a rhyme and reason for how and when (and why) negotiations occur in any disagreement, given that I thought this was important to both parties, why have we not seen any old-time marathon bargaining sessions?  If you really want to hammer something out and “save the season”, don’t you stop playing games at some point, acknowledge you have huge philosophical (and practical) issues, but still hit your heads together until you start to compromise and make progress?  I want to hear that these guys, and I mean all the major “players” in this drama, from Bettman and Fehr to real NHL’ers—and yes, the blood-sucking lawyers, if necessary—have exhausted every old idea, new idea and everything in-between for 72 hours straight while eating pizza, smoking and drinking beer (or a spirit of their preference...).  Just do it.  At least try and see if fatigue (if nothing else) moves the needle toward less greed—and also toward common sense.
  2. As much as most of us loathe the owners in many ways, why can’t we concede that these guys, who admittedly can’t help themselves, it seems, are truly between a rock and a hard place?  By this I mean the “C” word is always in front of them: collusion.  If common sense could prevail and the owners simply had the authority to band together and say they were going to stop handing out crazy contracts, they could surely run their businesses without fear of losing money.  Please tell me they could.
  3. We as fans need to recognize that NHL owners are competitive people, in most cases. They want to win.  Their fans want them to acquire and hire the best players possible and pay big money to get them.  And every summer, all it takes is one GM, or one owner (this past summer it was Minnesota, of all franchises) to over-spend and suddenly the players get to say, “See, you guys did this freely.  You obviously have the money to spend.  Don’t blame us”.  We need salary limits, period.
  4. I would love it if the owners could stand up and say, “we just can’t run a league any more where we pay out 15 year, 120 million dollar (or whatever) contracts.  We simply can’t.  This is not major-league baseball, or the NFL, where the revenue is endless and forever with huge TV contracts every year.  We’ll still pay out big money, but we have decided that we don’t want to spend more than, say, 5 million a year for a star player.  There won’t be a formal cap other than that, but too many of our markets just can’t handle huge deals.  But we are also going to reduce ticket prices (ah, another NHL promise that was broken) in all markets so everyday fans can get to games once in a while.  Couldn’t players live on five million instead of eight, one and a half million instead of 3?
  5. If that number dropped, maybe long-term contracts would be more acceptable for all.  But could we, in a 10-year deal, make only the first five years guaranteed?  From there, is a player is injured or performance drops off, the team could still pay out a million a year, at their option.  And the player would still be free to sign elsewhere as a free-agent if he is dropped.
  6. Why do the players (a lot of them, at least) feel the need to criticize Bettman in public?  (Not that Bettman likely cares all that much, though no one enjoys being pilloried constantly in public forums.) I mean, it’s not as though we are talking about an industry where the “employees” are making a lousy wage and have been put upon.  To me, it’s just bad form—adults pouting because the candy man has said he will stop handing out as much candy.
  7. I saw a piece somewhere (I’m sorry, I don't remember where, I would cite it if I could) saying the “star” players had done all this “extra” stuff since the last lockout as part of what they thought was a partnership with the NHL.  (For example, taking part in public relations activities, etc.)  Those players now don’t trust Bettman, so that perspective goes, because he has let them down again.  But as much as I respect the talent these players obviously have, here are a couple of questions I'd like to ask :  how else could these guys make anywhere near the kind of money they do playing hockey?  And if you were making anywhere from half a million to eight million dollars a year, plus tons of other freebies and perks (and you were picked up in a limousine to attend NHL-sponsored functions to promote the league that pays you that salary and all those other niceties) would you feel hard-done-by having to attend an event here and there?
  8. I saw a poll this week (I think it was on that said 50% of fans blame both sides, while about 25% blame the owners and 15% blame the players for the current situation.  That sounds about right, from what I sense.  I think some people are naturally disposed to support the “workers”—in this case, the players, while others may tend to support the business “owners”.  I guess I just can’t find a way to see this as a traditional “union representing the little guy versus big business" fight.
  9. I think if owners weren’t afraid of collusion, you would still see big salaries, but it would just be a case that no one would pay over, say, five million a season.  Then you would see a number of teams bidding for a player, but the player’s signing decision would be based on other factors not relating primarily to just “salary”.
  10. I also believe that if the collusion question was not an issue, owners could live without a cap.  (I wish there wasn’t one, myself, and not simply because the Leafs have the wherewithal to spend more than some franchises…)  We don’t need a cap, we just need teams who rely on good business sense, building a good product and creating a great and cost-affordable fan experience—in markets that naturally love hockey.  And the players need to realize they aren’t part of one of America’s “pastimes”.  The NHL will never be baseball, football or basketball.

For too long the NHL has been trying to fit a round peg into a square hole.  Too many markets just aren’t and will never be true hockey markets.  I named those in yesterday’s post that I feel are superb hockey markets:  Minnesota, New York (Rangers), Detroit, Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Ottawa, St. Louis, Buffalo, Winnipeg, Toronto and Philadelphia.  Though both markets went through down times at various points not that long ago, I would certainly include Chicago and Boston, two Original Six franchises.  I could live with a 16-team league (24, more realistically, as I’ve posted here before) but the NHLPA would never accept losing those jobs.

Those are some of my thoughts du jour but on this subject, I mostly enjoy hearing from VLM readers.  So if you’re so inclined, send your thoughts along.


  1. Hey Mike,

    Finding myself pretty uninspired by questions of the lockout, to be honest, but wanted to check in to let you know I haven't stopped reading for all that I've been silent a while.

    Looking forward to chewing on the issue of how we are playing once we are playing.

  2. Michael,

    You make very many excellent points.

    Two key words, that keep cropping up, in my mind are at the heart of the problem: collusion and parity.

    You have dealt very well with collusion and its ramifications and I have very little to add on that point.

    The striving for parity is a whole another can of worms. It goes against our competitive instincts. It mirrors what we are doing in education where we spend enourmous amounts of time and money on the less than mediocre at the expense of the hard workers and the gifted. This analogy can be seen very clearly in the recent dismantling of the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. The NHL's message: No dynasties...excellence is punished.

    It is interesting that all the Canadian teams were included in your list (a list that I agree with by the way) and that the American teams were all in the northeast and midwest with St Louis being the one exception. These are the traditional hockey markets.

    I feel that the NHL has lost its way under the direction of Bettman and a few powerful American owners (Jeremy Jacobs comes to mind). The search for the pie in the sky American TV contract has led to expansion into non-viable cities that are major TV markets but will not support hockey. It has led to a watered down product with some of the highest ticket prices in professional sports. It has led to three teams in the NYC area (two are struggling)and only one in the Toronto area. It has led to the NHL turning down a $225 million offer for the Phoenix franchise when they cannot find an owner who will pay $160 million to keep it in Phoenix.

    I once read an article that opined that no franchise should be awarded to a city below the snow line. I tend to agree. Unfortunately all wishes for contraction and the return of hockey to its roots is a fanciful exercise...but we can dream.

  3. Thanks for checking in, KiwiLeaf. It's hard for most fans to get excited about CBA talks and "no progress". Thanks for staying in touch.

  4. Your point with regard to parity is an interesting one, PeteCam. It's funny, decades ago, Pete Rozelle, the former NFL commissioner, spoke proudly of creating a league with "parity", where, on any given Sunday, a weaker team could upset a really good team. To a certain extent, that has indeed kept the fires burning for NFL fans.

    But you may be on to something with the NHL. "Parity" in the NHL has tended to lead to mediocrity. The Leafs play in the East, and I keep saying it is a mediocre Conference. And it is.

    I sometimes long for the old days, when the Habs, for example, were always to be feared. And yes, as you put it, a dynasty. They were a team to love or hate. We had real rivalries back then. Now we have too many teams, too many franchises located in non-hockey markets. It's all about money, yet now that they have created the golden goose, they can't even agree on how to share the wealth. Sad.

    Thanks PeteCam. I enjoyed reading your comments. Great post.

  5. I'm pretty sure 7) came from Kypreos article?

  6. Michael
    I am like KiwiLeaf. I still check in but can't generate enthusiasm to chip in very often until we get back to playing the game.
    Two thoughts:
    1. If the cap were eliminated and free agency liberalised, the teams that could afford it would build great rosters and quality of competition between these teams would improve. These games would be fun to watch. the teams that can't afford to pay because of insufficient revenue will then go belly up. I don't really care! Fewer teams and less jobs at the top would definitely improve the quality of the game for the fans to watch.
    I expect TV revenues, particularly for the US market will decline/disappear. I don't care! Less revenue for owners to pay to players. I don't care! Under this scenario, some owners lose, most players lose, markets that can't support teams lose their teams, quality of game competition improves, Fans Win.
    Perhaps the remaining teams under this scenario look like the list of teams you have generated Michael?
    I know - not going to happen but "what if"?
    In the meantime they can sort out their business disagreements and when they decide to play again they can let me know. In the meantime, I'll find something else to do and I'm determined not to miss them. I really don't care about the current custodians (owners and players) of the game.

    2. Sad to see the death notice of Budd Lynch. Although I grew up in Windsor, I detested the Wings and lived and died for the Leafs. While I was a youngster, Budd was the Wings' on-air TV and then radio voice for many years before becoming their arena announcer and as such I was determined not to like him as he was a "homer" for the wrong team! Anybody connected to the Wings was tarred with that brush!

    As I got older, I came to respect his ability and appreciated his dedication to the Wings. (Even though I still don't like the Wings!) What was never in doubt however, was my admiration and respect for the sacrifice he made for his country in the war. He was a good man and contributed a lot to the enjoyment of the game for Wings fans in particular and hockey fans in general for many years. RIP Budd.

  7. I'm certain your opening comments regarding the lockout represent the views of many, many hockey fans.

    Thank you for your thoughts about Budd Lynch. I'm a fellow Essex County guy, and my memories of Budd mirror yours. In fact, I was just discussing this with a long-time friend from the Windsor area. When we were kids, we of course didn't like Budd because he was so pro-Red Wings. But that was his job! And he was good at it, as was Bruce Martyn, who did a great job with him on the radio broadcasts of Red Wing games when I was a youngster in the early 1960s.

    I remember my Dad telling me that Lynch fought for Canada in the war. That he became a beloved figure in the Detroit area speaks highly of his character and loyalty. He clearly lived a full life.

    Thanks Ed.

  8. I'll focus on parity and taking responsibility for now... There is a clear benefit to the players associated with the expansion that provides 30 teams (plus minor league affiliates) in which to 'ply their craft'.

    A simple line of questioning arises:

    Do you players want those positions (afforded by a slate of 30 teams) available for as many UNION players as are deriving a benefit right now?


    Do you want the highest salaries possible in a smaller/stronger league that plays in traditional markets and does not seek the 'bigger pie' expansion that is 'not yet' fully developed?

    If you don't like 'either/or' options, then how about recognizing that you are in the land between the 'now' and the 'not yet'.

    Herein lies the responsibility that you players leave on the shoulders of the owners when you recognize that there is more revenue (3.3 Billion) than there was before, but you fail to recognize the cost of making that bigger pie. The ingredients include teams with which some/many of your union brothers are playing.

    But, it's the owners fault for setting up teams in those markets... that's not my choice.

    Okay then, vote to contract and put your union brothers out of work. Should make for better teams, knowing you all care more about your contract than your teammates. We can put 6 individuals on the ice who can try to figure out how to be worth the most money! That should be fun!

    Conversely, should the NHLPA recognize that there are problems associated with providing all union members with work, the players (who have had, and seem to want to recover, an unbalanced 43-57% partnership within this CBA) must recognize that with their level of economic power comes great responsibility.

    The players must recognize that their guaranteed contracts through injury without release (unlike the NFL) are only guarantee-able, if the league can actually function.

    The players have proven to me that they 'see' a bigger pie but don't really know what new ingredients had to be added to make the pie so much bigger (i.e. the Bettman hope of a yet bigger pie that would come with a big TV deal).

    Noting only what they see, in the current 3.3B pie, the players seem to feel that their skills and participation (that is no greater than that contributed to the last CBA pie) warrants the same percentage of profits to be guaranteed to them in the new CBA as was the case with the smaller pie expectations stemming from lesser ingredient costs that had been afforded them during the last contract.

    The economic pie has to be baked... if you are an 'ingredient' then you have little say about what part of the pie is to be yours. If you participate as a baker/entrepreneur [who provided the oven - even if the bakery/building was partially provided by (non)fan taxpayers - but that's a whole 'other' matter], THEN you could take the risk and negotiate for something "NOT GUARANTEED" - kind of like at least 24 of the owners do (and the other 6 have underwritten for YOUR guarantees).

    If you 'just want to play' then be a good ingredient and contribute your share to the guaranteed contract that you have.

    If you want to be a risk-taker/entrepreneurial owner type... then negotiate for the opportunity to take that risk (where you could lose OR win big)... I wonder if you're familiar with that concept within the game. It seems you might be... therefore, you can't argue that the owners contribute less than you do, even if they're not 'playing' the game you allegedly 'love'.

    Go 50/50, and while you're at it, correct the problems that owners make for themselves (competing for you with ridiculous contracts), free them from the charge of 'collusion' and hold them accountable to an agreed standard that protects the GAME! In other words... step up and take responsibility for what you want!

  9. Hi Michael,

    Great post as always.

    While I agree with your first point, I really don't think that the NHL is interested in anything other than getting exactly what they want. A 43% demand right out of the gate could only make a bad situation worse. I actually liked the NHLPA proposal that promoted gradually reducing the players share as league revenues increased. I am of the opinion that the league has no interest in bargaining.

    To your point 2, the owners put themselves in a bad position as soon as they "won" the salary cap and "cost certainty". They pretty much had to start handing out stupid contracts to players just to meet the salary floor. In any other business this would be insanity, in the NHL it is business as usual.

    Nobody had to chase Ilya Kovalchuk all summer and offer a ridiculous, transparent, cap circumventing contract. But teams did and the "winner" was a bankrupt team that cannot even make payments on their debt. They still will not fill their arena, if they win the cup it will be another parking lot parade because no one really cares.

    Nobody had to pay 2 guys 200 million dollars along with 27 million in guaranteed bonuses or whatever it was. But they did. A league owned team managed to beat the deadline and lock up Shane Doan for over 5 million per season.

    It is hard to blame the players when the owners behave as they do and then demand remedy for their actions.

    I used to be an NFL fan, loved the Dolphins. I flew to Dallas just to watch the Cowboys play San Diego. The players went on strike in the early 80's, since then I have not watched an NFL game. Not one. Now I know that my departure was insignificant, however, I use it to illustrate that when pushed enough people will walk away.

    This was always a magical time of year for me. I could hardly wait until September to watch Leaf games again. I loved the exhibition schedule that would give us 4 games in 5 nights. It was a time of optimism and hope.

    This year I don't care. I don't care if they stay out one year or two years for that matter. And I am a hard core Leaf fan. However, if the imbeciles on both sides of this argument want to take me for granted like they did the last time then I say to hell with them. If the NHL wants to use the lockout every time that they screw things up then they are sending a loud and clear message to those that pay the bills.

    I am on nobody's side in this mess, but, in fairness, the players are hardly to blame for this one. They caved last time, the owners won, and look where we are,

    Do we need an end to cap circumvention? Yes. Do we need to limit contract terms? Absolutely. Do we have to stop overpaying for mediocrity? For sure. Eliminate bonuses? You bet.

    None of that forgives what the NHL is doing. And I am tired of it. Fix it now in an equitable manner, stop making the same stupid mistakes over and over, and get on with it.

    I have gone back to basic cable, I don't need Sportsnet or TSN. I have ditched Leafs TV. The Leaf plates on my car are gone. They will not get my money again. Fool me twice, shame on me.


  10. We see a lot of these issues similarly I sense, InTimeFor62. I realize others see things very differently, but I tend to support your perspective.

    To me, the owners are neither the good guys or the bad guys. Dislike them as we might, they are the people who created the league, who kept it alive all these years, who pay the big salaries (with our help) and take the business risk. And we do seem to forget that there is risk.

    Has the NHL had un-desirable owners? Of course. Many.

    But it also has solid people like Illitch who love the game, give back, and create a wonderful environment for their players and employees.

    So let's get, as you say, to 50/50. Both sides are mercenaries. We all understand. That's just the way it is. While all the nuances make it more complicated than just that 50/50 issue, as we all realize, just share the wealth - and the greed - and meet in the middle.

    Good reading. Thanks, InTimeFor62.

  11. I really wish that both sides in this dispute could read your comments, Brad (cbh747), and those of all the thoughtful individuals who post here.

    Each of us are long-time, devoted hockey fans. We respect the NHL (if not always its methods). We appreciate our team (in this case, the Leafs). We love the heritage, the legacy that the league and the Leaf franchise represent.

    But stupidity and greed is trumping everything right now.

    I paid particular attention to your comments about your time as an NFL fan. Sometimes even the most passionate fan walks away, disgusted with whatever- greed, the disconnect, the ridiculous arguments, the sympathy-seeking.

    That you have not followed the NFL may be a larger message when it comes to hockey in the United States. How many fans there will sit for another year (or more) away from the game?

    The NHL must be the only product in the world that believes it can take itself off the store shelves every few years - for more than a year - and people will just come running back. How arrogant.

    As I've said here before, the less "needy" we sound, the stronger the message will be to all concerned.

    Thanks Brad. Really good post.

  12. I really appreciated all of the comments made by Brad (cbh747), and should have noted that my comments were really intended as a continuation of my earlier response to Joffrey Lupul - addressed as if to the players.

    I am 'trying to get them to the table' by highlighting the owner's perspective in a way that will bring resolution.

    I would write a message differently for the owners,in order to show them that a contract should be honoured (even if that contract exists within the framework of a CBA agreement/contract - i.e. be responsible for signing your contracts - even if you had hoped a new CBA would get you out of it. Recognize that most players would view their actual contract as negotiated in good faith, not as something to be 'pared down' in as little as mere days after signing. The owners should merely show these recent or late-signed contracts as evidence of the fundamental problems to be addressed by the new agreement. Owners and players together seeking solutions would garner far more public support than either of you have gained the way you're doing it now!) - Both sides are to blame for their greed and lack of stewardship over the game!

    I have been hoping the players could be motivated to 'be the bigger man' and bring a proposal that recognizes an equal share in a bigger pie. Hence, the need for a reality check as I write to the players. If the owners play the role of the bigger man, then they need to understand a roll-back of salaries you gave them is offensive.

    Get creative and use a shared revenue pool to solve problems;
    Use changes to cap application to deal with injuries/forced retirement;
    Consider a voluntary shared revenue/limited luxury tax component to extracting funds from 6 owners;
    Consider trading picks/prospects/office management(!) for salary cap from the lower teams;
    Consider stepping down to a 50/50 target for shared revenues (but hold back some from both sides to deal with injuries/retirements and teams losing money);
    Restructure the way that buyouts are done (and how they're applied to the cap) - some aren't done because of injury, rather level of play has decreased - perhaps you could 'cap' how many years of a contract are 'guaranteed', thereby partially solving the problems created by all these long term contracts (addressing the cap implications for such a contract may necessitate trading for cap space in order to function in the new CBA), but at least the contract could be honoured (though an out could be given to the player that would allow negotiations under the new CBA (or release to UFA status if such negotiations failed).

  13. The whole system needs to recover a workable/healthy perspective and both sides are contributing to the problems the NHL faces.

    AND it is clear to me that the owners contributed to the offense taken by the players with their first volley offering the players 43% - it was a harsh message that could have been accomplished differently.

    What if (before actually giving a different proposal to the players) Bettman had merely prefaced the actual preposal with some preliminary comments asking the players to take a day or so to "step into the owners' shoes and consider how well they could function with 43% of the revenue." Having said this, the league could have provided the players with some independently audited documentation/evidence supporting their "need for a fairer split of the bigger pie they have demonstrably and successfully brought to the table."

    It seems to me that the offense created by their actual ham-fisted proposal forced upon the negotiations an unnecessary hole out of which both sides must climb - unfortunately there is another un-acknowledged side in said 'pit' - i.e. the fans who are stuck there with little hope that anything we say will even be heard over the ridiculous greed-infested tumult that constitutes the battle for public opinion in the media.

    You both have dug the pit AND you're standing on our shoulders in order to get out and collect the money in our pockets... Here's a question: Who helps us out of this pit?

  14. Thanks for those follow=up thoughts, InTimeFor62. Great food for thought.

    My guess is the owners have wanted a 50/50 share all along, and submitted 43% because otherwise, they believed the players would (as they did anyway) start off in the 50s.

    Bottom line, fair or not (and I'm so confused I don't really know what's "fair" at this point), the owners want a 50-50 split. I hope both sides can make it work.

  15. As much as I don't like the manner of commentary on the Leafs players that comes out of the mouth of Glen Healy, it sounds like he has shared an idea that is compatible with some thoughts around here:

  16. Rather than obsess about this, have some fun:

    "So I got a special code running today and tomorrow for Marlies tickets. The code is: 13839068. Tickets will be $23 instead of $37 which is a great deal. They will be on the side near the end that the Marlies attack twice. The number you have to call 416-263-3540 and you'll speak with Wayne himself.* There are a limited number of tickets unless there is a lot of interest in which case there will be more tickets.

    So come grab a beer, say hello, watch the Leafs' future, try not to weep, and meet some internet people.*"

    The folks at Pension Plan Puppets always link to Vintage Leaf Memories so it might be a nice way to meet some readers and the people that post here.

    I know that if I lived in TO, I would sign up for this.

  17. I'll check out Healy's post, InTimeFor62...

  18. I have to disagree with the characterization that contraction is mostly opposed by the NHLPA on the basis of job loss. It seems a straw man argument, or at least misrepresents the issue.

    There is zero interest at any level for contraction. I do agree the PA would fight it based on job loss. But the point is that there is no one at the NHL or among the owners who would favour contraction. It is a complete non-starter.

    A 30-team league has immensely more value than a 16- or 24- team league. A league in contraction is will see diminishing values of individual franchises, reduced TV rights fees, reduced potential expansion fees. It serves fewer markets, it reduces merchandise sales. It could also have further affects on individual owners, say a man like Jeremy Jacobs, who deals in concessions and serves many of his fellow owners' facilities.

    Winnipeg's ownership group quietly pursued a franchise. They got Atlanta because there was zero interest in anyone buying the Thrashers. Why does Phoenix survive? Because the NHL has roped Glendale Arizona into giving them $25MM a year in subsidy. And, because when a team cannot match the league average for revenue growth, the NHL's revenue sharing formula actually gives them LESS money.

    Contraction is not an issue being held up by a union protecting jobs. I think it's unfair to keep portraying it that way. Contraction is a non-issue, in larger part because owners wish to keep their asset values as high as possible, so they don't propose it.

  19. Fair points, Mark.

    I will only say, not to engage in a long debate, that while no one on the league side is suggesting contraction (agreed- owners have an asset, league image is better with more teams, etc.) it's clear there aren't enough true hockey cities to have financial success in many of the markets they are in.

    No, it is not "only" the union that would oppose any such action, for sure. But the PA has its own warts. It wants to be able to play the collusion card (which is a joke when you look at the salaries these guys get...), while grabbing the huge contracts and then being able to blame the owners for spending all that money.

    We just see this whole situation from different perspectives, and that's fine.