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Another plan
If it's broken, fix it
11/24/04 - by Ken Smyth

I've been silent about the NHL lockout because everything I wrote was unprintable; but now turkey day is just about here and it reminds us just how much NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Players' Association chief Bob Goodenow resemble dumb, overfed birds. They're egotistical and territorial, defecate in their own living space and don't seem to understand or even care about long term effects of their actions. But unfortunately Bettman and Goodenow won't end up on, or more importantly AT any table together anytime soon. The NHL is quietly killing itself off before our eyes, and both groups of lawyers involved seem satisfied to just pass the gravy as they glare at each other across the room.

Some fans express hope that a short season could start in January. That's a wishful load of crap. There is no indication that the owners are willing to start talking until the players accept a salary cap and the players' leadership says that as long as the owners want a salary cap there's nothing to talk about. Both sides are staying home; so nobody talks, nobody agrees, and nobody plays except in Europe. If the US election ran this way, both Bush and Kerry supporters would've stayed away from the polls to spite each other and Ralph Nader would be our next President.

There's a reason for the stalemate: both sides want to have something to show after killing off much of the season and neither side wants to negotiate anything away. Plus, the players are happy with the current system because it's making them rich. The owners, though, say that many teams are going broke and they need a new system. I say it's a free market system: if players are getting so much that teams go broke, then let a few teams fold and the extra talent released should push the salary scale back down. But it's never that simple.

The system set up under the old collective bargaining agreement worked out well for both players and owners at the expense of ticket buyers and those new owners who paid in exorbitant expansion fees in the 1990's. It's only during the last few years with a declining economy in the US that the majority of owners felt the pinch. Many of these guys regretted the last collective bargaining agreement with the Players' Association almost immediately after they signed it and want to make up for that mistake now. They also remember well that Bettman was the one who talked them into that deal, so Bettman needs to stand fast this time to keep his job if for no other reason.

Undoubtedly the NHL owners, make that ALL pro sports franchise owners, envy the way the NFL handled things back in 1987. That year, NFL owners and players couldn't set up a new collective bargaining agreement. The players voted to strike and the owners went ahead with the season (largely because of TV contracts) with "replacement" players. These were the last guys cut in training camps plus a good smattering of ex-NFL and USFL players. A fair percentage of the real players also crossed the lines to play. After about a month the NFL Players' Association ended the strike. It was almost six years before the whole thing emerged from the courts with a hard salary cap for the owners and a limited free-agency structure for the players. But the players' association was crippled as a union, there is no arbitration, and free spending teams like the 49ers and Cowboys no longer pushed the salary scale up for the cheapskates.

There are two major catches in applying that scenario to the NHL. First, part of the underlying problem in the NHL is the scarcity of skilled players. As Mike wrote in his discussion of the Barons/Edmonton game, minor league hockey is just that: minor league. On the other hand, NFL teams turn away hundreds of decent college players every year who don't quite impress the coaches during a few weeks of training camp. The NFL has shown that giving these guys a little more development (like the NFL Europe and Arena football) can turn quite a few of them into NFL-level players.

Second, and most important: that dispute was in football, an American obsession; this is hockey, a game mostly ignored. Turn off NFL football for a few weeks and you can bet that people (especially betting people!) will get angry. Turn off NHL hockey and we see that most people in the US don't even notice. After a few months everybody outside of a few fanatics like you and me won't even care if it ever starts up again. I'm sure that the NHL accountants already did their "due diligence" and calculated the tax write-offs for each team should the league fold altogether. (It would be interesting to see those figures: how much is the NHL worth dead? Conspiracy theorists, the lines are open...)

So what's to be done? Replacement players are obviously on the horizon here, but what is the plan after that? Will the owners charge NHL prices for a bastard product? They'd better not, especially considering their own argument that salaries are a major part of ticket prices. Will the games with AHL grinders and fourth-liners put enough butts in seats to keep thirty teams alive? Twenty? No way are you going to convince fans that the AHL guys are major league players just because they wear NHL sweaters. Remember, the "original six" were not the ORIGINAL NHL teams; they were just the six that survived the economic depression and World War Two. Over all, replacement players are a dumb idea unless the owners are content to demolish the league and start over again to build a US fan base.

So while a large part of me agrees that the best way to keep millionaires from arguing about a sum of money is to not give it to them, and this lock-out is certainly doing that; another large part wants to see the NHL back on the ice. Here's my proposal for straightening this mess out:

1) A sliding salary cap/luxury tax would be installed. A team's cap would be based on its revenue from all sources and include a floor so cheapskate owners couldn't put out a terrible team and blame the cap. Teams over the cap now would have a few years to come into compliance before the tax would fully kick in. The luxury tax would be 100% of the amount over the cap, and would be divided on a prorated basis among the small-market teams with low income. The NHL itself would take over responsibility for transportation expenses to help equalize the disparity between the Western and Eastern Conferences in that regard, with each team paying a fixed price to a transport fund.

2) Free agency would be made understandable. Players would be free agents once their contracts expired after a certain age, say 28, or 29; maybe higher for goalies. That's it. No classes, groups, anything else, except as in the next paragraph.

3) No arbitration. The current arb scheme penalizes all the teams for stupid moves made by free spenders like Toronto and the Rangers. If a player past a certain level of experience could not reach agreement with his team, his current contract would be automatically renewed for one year and he would then become a free agent. Or he can sit out for a season and become a free agent, if he's that pissed at the management.

4) Let's get rid of the rent-a-players. Players whose contracts are ending and who could become free agents at the end of a season from either 2) or 3) above could not be traded after January 26th (Wayne Gretzky's birthday) unless the new team signed them to at least a one year contract or the player announced his intent to become a free agent at the end of the next season as above.

5) Any owner not liking this plan can sell his franchise back to the league for $75 million US, one time offer. Teams so sold back will be disbanded after one year if no new owner wants to buy them from the league for the same $75 million. Players from disbanded teams will be free agents.

6) Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow will be given lifetime suspensions from any rank within hockey above puck. As an additional gesture to placate fans, stuffed likenesses of them will be used as slapshot targets during intermission entertainment for the first two weeks of the season. (Not to worry, for all they've done to hockey they should be given lifetime passes by NBA Commissioner David Stern)

Yes, my plan doesn't address rules changes or scheduling or any of those non-salary issues. Hey, those will work themselves out. Meanwhile, if it's not "Game On" pretty soon, it will be "Game Gone" for good. Enjoy your holidays, and somebody let me know if it's worth the drive to a Fresno Falcons game.

Contact Ken at

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