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
publishers, representing both sides of the agument. Contributors include:
The debate was triggered by an article written by Lyle
Richardson for FoxSports.com. 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
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
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.
DArcy 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.
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.
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.
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.
DArcy: 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'
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.
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
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