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The CBA Debate
Part 3 of 4
10/13/04 - From the Publishers of the Hockey Alliance

There is no greater issue facing the fans, players, and owners of the NHL than the expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement. Both the player's union and the owners are waging a war for public opinion, considered fairly vital in case of a long term labor shortage. Fans find themselves, as always, stuck in the middle with no represented voice at the CBA negotiation table. Fans have to look past the propaganda and rhetoric spewing from league and union offices in an attempt to understand the issues being raised. The divide among fans who are lining up either behind the players, the owners or themselves is fairly strong and has sparked many interesting debates this summer. The following is a debate between Hockey Alliance publishers, representing both sides of the agument. Contributors include:

The debate was triggered by an article written by Lyle Richardson for This conversation is a good example of the kind of debate NHL fans are having this summer and shows the kind of passion fans have for the league and the game of hockey. The conversation is picked up after discussion about the article had begun.

This is Part 3 of 4

Lyle Richardson : I've been reading what you're saying, and I'm well aware, again, that competition drives the decision making process by the teams. I'm also aware that there are fiscally prudent teams who are trying to run things as best they can. Some of them, unfortunately, either put themselves into that situation or were placed in it by their previous ownership or management. A few mavericks have done damage, no question, but that hasn't stopped most from playing along with the example set by some of them. One good case in point is busting the cap on entry-level contracts, which was first set in motion by the Bruins, who usually make themselves out to be poster boys for fiscal reponsibility with their hard line approach to salary negotiations. The other owners didn't have to go along with that, but they did. Many teams cry about how tough they're finding it financially, but most have raised their salaries accordingly over the years, some more than others obviously, but all of them have.

Nobody put guns to their heads to force them to do it. Competition may drive some to make mistakes or bad decisions, but why should that be copied by the rest? Again, if a system needs to be put in place to protect the owners from themselves, then what does that say about the calibre of people running the teams or the league? I also understand the fact that both sides try to get the best deal they can in any negotiations, but in this case, if the league is in as much trouble as it claims to be, it shouldn't be trying to play hardball with the players but should instead try working together with the union to save it before it's too late. Unfortunately, there remain several influential owners and GMs who are out to crush the NHLPA, not to work with it, and that's where some of the more contentious problems are coming from.

I still fail to see where laying blame where it rightfully belongs is irrelevant. Shouldn't those "mavericks" be held accountable to some degree for their actions by the league or by their fellow owners, so that the same blunders that harm the league aren't committed again, rather than have those blunders copied by others? I'm not preaching to you, D'Arcy, and perhaps we're just not on the same wave length about this, but to me, if you screw up, you must be accountable for your actions. Regardless of your personal feelings about Dowbiggin, his latest book "Money Players" is a revealing look at how the NHL got to this point since 1995. It's no second hand account, but is instead a first hand account based on interviews with Bettman, Goodenow, plus several owners, players, and agents. It's as worthy a read as his first book on the subject "The Defence Never Rests". As for the other books I noted, I suggest you give them a read if you haven't already. The NHL has been poorly run for a long time, and unless the current bunch running the show gets their act together, it's going to be in worse shape ten years from now.

D’Arcy McGrath: Really it comes down to this - I'm more focused on what needs to happen and less focused on hanging blame in the past. Once that line is stated there really isn't too much I disagree with ... owners cooked their own goose, but I don't see that as a fault issue but an expected result out of a flawed CBA (where owners are allowed to spend beyond their means) leading up to the need for a more cost restrictive format this time around. The owners have a hard stance, but so do the players from my angle. I see two very stubborn sides in this, not one. You keep saying nobody has held a gun to their heads when the topic of salary escalation comes up, while I maintain essentially they have. If your choice as a sports team owner is to pay the going rate and lose a fortune or lose on the ice and lose your fan base I fail to see how you're not being forced to make a bad decision. I just can't bring myself to support Dowbiggen in any way ... he just has too many inconsistencies and assumptions in his writing that don't add up (almost like suggesting Michael Moore is a good read on the Iraq situation). However, I'm not a defender of the NHL or the way it has run it's business over the past decade. Some serious mistakes have been made, I am sure.

Lyle Richardson : I too am focused on what's needs to be done, but that's tempered by what's gone on in the past. If those who are responsible for this situation were giving any indication that they had learned from their mistakes of the past and wished to promote real change in conjunction with the union, I'd be less inclined to point out that it's their actions that got us here in the first place. Unfortunately, I'm not hearing much contrition and that's why I'm cynical as to their determination to get a decent deal done. The players come by their stubbornness honestly, as the NHL's history of labour negotiations makes painfully clear. If they had a mantra, it would be the classic line from The Who: "We won't get fooled again!" If you look at the past several years, one team consistently kept their payroll under control, retained their core players and had years of success because they understood there were more ways to build and maintain a successful franchise that tossing around cash, and that's the New Jersey Devils.

Fortunately, over the past several years, other clubs have finally grasped the concept and are working toward the same model. The Tampa Bay Lightning, once they got new ownership and smarter management, are one example. The Vancouver Canucks and San Jose Sharks are other examples, as are your Calgary Flames. For the most part, those clubs haven't had to pay the going rate and lose a fortune or lose on the ice and lose their fan base. Indeed, once the Bolts and Canucks got their financial houses in order and improved the way they ran their respective clubs, they iced successful clubs and improved their respective fan bases. Those teams have my respect because they've brought in people who are able to make it work. As for Dowbiggin, I strongly suggest you put aside your bias and approach "Money Players" with an open mind. I despise Larry Brooks of the NY Post, but if he wrote that book I'd still endorse it because there is no obvious bias on the part of the author. Dowbiggin doesn't use "selective editing" of his bits. The story is told through the words of the main people on both sides of the issue, and it shows both sides of the story and the complexities involved quite well.

D’Arcy McGrath: Once again a very pro union stance from your side ... fair enough, there are only three real choices, the league, the NHLPA and giving up on the sport. We just keep getting stuck on this same point ... I guess we'll never agree. I see the league's wish to impose a restrictive system as proof that they know the maverick owner is guilty of making a mess of this whole thing and a step to make sure that doesn't happen again. That's the real change, the move to right wrongs, the attempt to get a "decent deal done". The NHLPA under the AL Eagelson surely didn't get their fair share up to and including the late 80's but I think the pendulum swung the other way in the last 17 or so years making the owners side the victim in the past decade of hockey. So essentially, I'm saying the owners likely come by their stubbornness honestly as well and will try hard "not to be fooled again" (thinking a CBA as a tool will be used correctly and not used against them) The Flames kept a modest budget and still lost 35 million over the past 7 years by the way. Dowbiggen ... just can't man. And I've never known an author that doesn't use "selective editing" on both sides of the gamete.

Lyle Richardson : How about a fourth choice: the league and the union working together for a change toward a common goal: improving the NHL both in salaries and with their on-ice product? I'm not "pro-union" by the way, I just believe, based on the facts I've read and the research I've done, that the league has done a very poor job in both their operations and their labour talks with the players. If it were the other way around, you'd probably accuse me of being "pro-owner". I'm not sitting here wildly swinging at the "fat cat owners", but rather I base my articles on what I've read and researched.

I'm seeing very little improvement in either regard from them, although I will admit there are some owners and management types who are doing a good job to try to run their teams responsibly. You're right, we'll probably never see eye-to-eye on this. I disagree with your take regarding a restrictive system because realistically that's not going to fly with the players, and it certainly isn't going to sit well with the "maverick owners", some of whom have already made noises about how they're being "unfairly singled out". That's why I believe the owners, not the players, will bend first, because that was their two weaknesses in the 1992 strike and 1994 lockout: their internal squabbling and constant underestimation of the union. The next lockout, if it happens, will not only be owners vs players but owners vs owners, big market against the small and middle market teams, just like before. Given the lousy way the owners have conducted their business in the past, I'm cynical about their motives and put little faith in their system. The pendulum only swung the other way in the 1992 players strike in favour of the players, and that's thanks to the ouster of Eagleson and the hiring of Goodenow. You may not like his style, but he puts the players first and will fight for them, something "the Eagle" never did.

Again, if you believe the owners were "out-smarted" by the union and the agents, then what does that say about their calibre? I thought they were supposed to be smart businessmen? They weren't "out-smarted" so much as they underestimated the players resolve, while their own greed clouded their judgment. As for the Flames losing money, there's no doubt they have, being located in a small Canadian market where their revenues were in Canadian bucks but players salaries were paid in American dollars. The league already has a modest revenue-sharing scheme in place for Canadian teams but that ranks far below the rest of the major league sports, and those sports don't use that scheme to shore up Canadian clubs, but to instead spread the pot around to try to help all teams stay competitive, thus improving their entertainment value and their profits. It's a pity you can't put your bias against Dowbiggin aside to read "Money Players", D'Arcy, because I think you're missing out on a valuable piece of research material if you do. That being said, why not check out the other books I mentioned?

They cover the NHL labour wars up to 1992 but they're terrific reference sources which are still relevant to today's labour troubles. D’Arcy: Maybe I'll check the others out ... I don't know if I'd call my dislike for Dowbiggen a bias though. That makes me sound somewhat close minded. I just don't like the guy. I have the same "bias" against the ballet, sushi, tofu, and cats. Owners Bending: I just can't see it with the veto rule that Bettman worked into his last contract. With 30 teams in the league a full 23 club owners would have to band together in order to capitulate for a deal that Bettman doesn't like. 23! That's more than a handful. In 1994 the big problem resided in that the big market owners held the control since many of the mid size markets felt they too were big players. Now the reverse is true. Most mid tier owners (the bulk of them, say 15 teams) are siding with the smaller market owners which essentially eliminates any chance that the owners will bend early. The Rangers and Leafs will whine but so what? How many others will? The Bruins and Flyers are on the cost certainty track, so too are the Capitals. I just don't see much room to fail on the owners side with the veto in Bettmans' hands.

Lyle Richardson : Like I said earlier, I can't stand Larry Brooks of the NY Post, or for that matter Al Strachan of the Toronto Sun and Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun, but if one of them, not Dowbiggin, had written "Money Players", I would've approached it with an open mind to see if it was worthwhile or not. Give it a try, D'Arcy, what could it hurt? To date, I've yet to find anything in print that covers the past ten years of the NHL labour front as well as "Money Players" does.

The owners voted 17-9 for the last CBA, so it's not that much of a stretch to imagine 23 of the 30 voting in favour of whatever deal they want. The
small market clubs may be banding with the mid-market ones, but they're also the ones who are concerned about losing money and possibly their franchises if an entire season is lost to a labour dispute. They're looking long-term, beyond next season, and wondering if their fan base will take a hit. For all the talk of "we'll lose less money if we don't have a season than we would if we had one", they're still losing money, and will continue doing so even if a new deal is in place that favours them if the fan base is affected.

Remember, the owners felt they had the whip hand in 1992 and 1994 and yet they were "outsmarted" both times. They may be more determined this time around but I get the sense that, rather than trying to work in conjunction with the players union, some of the influential owners are still trying to crush it. If they take that route again, it'll only blow up in their faces again.

Ultimately, it'll be the owners who'll decide if there's a lockout and how long it lasts. The players are willing to discuss anything other than a
cap, which is what they claim the league is seeking when it speaks of "cost certainty". As long as a cap of any kind is on the table, the union is
refusing to discuss it.

D’Arcy McGrath: Dowbiggen- to me sports writers are somewhat like news media when it comes to certain topics. If you want a right wing lean you got to Fox, if you want a left wing lean you go to say CBS. In this case if you want a pro union lean you go to Dowbiggen (from what the Calgary fanbase has see in his weekly column in the Calgary Herald). That isn't to say that he doesn't make valid points or have pertinent information to share, but that a person like me just wouldn't enjoy the angle in the text for an entire book. That isn't closed minded, it's just honest. I seek the middle in these things and try to avoid the extremes. Dowbiggen is extreme from what I and others have gathered. Owners: I think a 17-9 in 1994 is very different than a 23-7 in 2004 since all but maybe 6 teams now call themselves middle or small market teams. That's a huge change and one that should result in a very hard stance from the owners.

This is just my opinion, mind you, but when you see guys like Hicks in Dallas, Leonis in Washington, Snyder in Philly all siding with cost certainty (all big markets) it's hard to believe there'll be enough "get it done" owners to capitulate. Frankly I see them holding the line for the reason you say they won't .... looking long term. These guys need a system that works to go forward and I can't see them settling for less soon at the expense of the long-term outlook. Negotiation: From what I read, the NHLPA isn't simply saying no to a cap, they are saying no to any system that places a percentage of earnings quota on players. That could come in the form of a cap, of course, but it also limits the negotiation itself. It's always seemed funny to me that the NHLPA claims the owners are inflexible for not discussing anything but cost certainty when the NHLPA is equally as stubborn in not discussing it. Stance: Are you sure you're not pro-NHLPA in all this? We've been discussing this for a week and you are very consistent in your all praise for the players all condemnation for the owners slant. No big deal if that's the case, but it sure seems odd to me to see you deny it. I'm pro owner in a sense ... I don't know the men, or have any personal affection for them per say, but I hope their side is successful in bringing cost certainty to the game before the golden goose is dead and the league lays in ruins.

The debate continues on Monday with part 4 of 4.

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