NHL owners must face their own hypocrisy as CBA deadline nears
Wild owner Craig Leipold decried salary costs then spent big on two free agents
Owners got what they wanted in the last CBA, but here they are asking for help
A lockout will surely turn public sentiment in favor of NHLPA boss Donald Fehr
If I'm Donald Fehr, I have the easiest job in the world.
Seriously, the new boss of the NHL Players Association has the league dead to rights if -- and we know it will probably happen -- team owners start pleading poverty at the ongoing collective bargaining talks. If I'm Fehr, all I do is come in with a few press clippings in my soft leather briefcase. Here's one:
"We're not making money, and that's one reason we need to fix our system. We need to fix how much we're spending right now. [The Wild's] revenues are fine. We're down a little bit in attendance, but we're up in sponsorships, we're up in TV revenue. And so the revenue that we're generating is not the issue as much as our expenses. And [the Wild's] biggest expense by far is player salaries."
That's what Wild owner Craig Leipold told Minneapolis Star-Tribune beat writer Michael Russo in April. Fewer than three months later, Leipold signed two players -- Zach Parise and Ryan Suter -- to contracts that total a combined $196 million and 26 years.
If I'm Fehr, this is all I say to Leipold or whoever does the talking for him (i.e. Commissioner Gary Bettman): "So you say the Wild's revenues are fine, but you can't afford these big player salaries." Then I hold up that press clipping from April, and this one, which contains another quote, also from Leipold to Russo:
"AHHHHHHHHH!!! I am a madman. Oy, oy, oy. It's hard to come to grips with (this). It was such a fun, great process. I can't tell you, (GM) Chuck (Fletcher), (assistant GM) Brent Flahr, both those guys, had a very aggressive plan, thought that it was possible, thought that we could do it.
"This wasn't a knee-jerk kind of thing. It was discussed as a possibility months and months ago and going back to last season, some of the moves we made last season were in preparation for this. We were hoping they'd become free agents. That's how they think. They think long-term. This is a result of a very smart hockey ops department thinking long-term. A lot of people made this thing work. A lot of luck had to happen.
"Good things fell in our favor. And before we knew it, Monday night, my God, maybe we could get both. And it just started moving in that direction."
I'd simply put those statements on the table, get up, walk out and let Bettman and Co. squirm.
A lot -- maybe too much -- has been made of the possibility of another NHL work stoppage. Bettman has said nothing to suggest that a lockout is likely. On the contrary, his public statements have been leavened with encouragement that one won't happen.
"I don't understand both the speculation and the degree of negativity that it connotes considering we,, meaning the League and the players' association, have yet to have a substantive discussion on what we may each be looking for in collective bargaining," Bettman said in June during the Stanley Cup Final. "If somebody is suggesting [a lockout will occur], it's either because there's something in the water, people still have the NBA and NFL on the brain, or they're just looking for news on a slow day. It is nothing more than speculation at this point. There can't be any substance to it because there haven't been any substantive conversations."
Conversations between the NHL and the NHLPA have since started, however. And -- surprise -- a new CBA has yet to be achieved. The NHL, in fact, invoked its right to discontinue the previous agreement -- the one from 2005 in which the owners got the players to accept a 24-percent rollback on existing salaries, an escrow agreement that can potentially take away another double-digit percentage of pay, and a hard cap of $39 million per team.
Here is what Bettman said shortly after his side creamed the NHLPA, getting virtually everything it wanted:
"When you look back in a year, five, 10, this era in history -- today in particular -- will be viewed as a pivotal point in time. It's the time where we could begin to move forward, finally in an effective way where the game could be as good as it could be. This will probably be a seminal moment."
So why does the NHL want to discontinue the present CBA, after its "seminal moment?" Great question.
This is the same league that openly bragged about achieving all-time highs in revenues -- $3.2 billion -- this past season. That is $1 billion more than the NHL said its revenues were in 2006. Why then didn't the league just rubber-stamp a continuation of the present CBA as it could have?
We all know why: Because the owners are going to demand more. NHL players currently get 57 percent of overall revenue -- up from 54 percent in the first year of the 2005 CBA. Owners will surely say they should get a bigger slice now. After all, the NBA recently got its players to accept a 50-50 split. However, this is not an apples-to-apples comparison. The NBA has over $1 billion more than the NHL to divide between owners and players. The NBA also has less than half the NHL's number of players. Ergo, it's easier to agree to a 50-50 split of a much bigger pie.
We know there are NHL teams with financial problems. We read the headlines about the Phoenix Coyotes and New Jersey Devils and the money that hemorrhaged for years in other places like Tampa Bay, Florida, Nashville, Columbus, Dallas and Atlanta (RIP).
We know there are problems with the NHL's revenue-sharing model -- a Byzantine piece of legalese so incomprehensible that many of the league's management people don't even pretend to understand it. All you need to know about the current agreement's degree of nonsense is this: the New York Islanders, a franchise that loses landfill-sized amounts of money every year, cannot receive any revenue-sharing monies because it dwells in a market that has more than 2.5 million television households.
It remains true that the financial problems of teams in any sport are nearly always the result of bad products on the field, court or ice, or of incompetence in managing assets. If the NHL wants to tweak its revenue-sharing model as part of the next CBA, fine. It could use an overhaul. If the league wants to talk about increasing the age of unrestricted free agency (currently 27) closer to the previous 31, OK. If it wants to impose a maximum number of years on a contract (so we don't keep getting 13-year deals a la Parise and Suter), that sounds reasonable.
But if the NHL imposes another lockout on the players in September -- as many observers predict -- over the basic issue of revenue splits, then the league will be unmercifully hammered in the arena of public relations. The owners got a lot of public sympathy the last time around, but they will rightfully receive none now. They convinced a lot of people that teams were losing their shirts in 2004, the players were greedy and the league couldn't survive without drastic concessions.
Owners got what they wanted in the CBA of 2005, but somehow here we are again, creeping up on the Sept. 15 expiration date with some of the same whispers of "We need help!" coming from their side again. Leipold's plaintive cry in April to the Star-Tribune was contradicted by his "Oy oy oy!" cry of joy on the Fourth of July.
This inherent form of hypocrisy, on the public record, is what confronts the league and its owners as Sept. 15 nears. And it is what will potentially make Donald Fehr -- the former bogeyman of Major League Baseball - an unlikely figure of public sympathy.
NHL owners like Leipold have already seen to that.