Haggerty: NHL could be looking at a shortened season

Haggerty: NHL could be looking at a shortened season
June 12, 2012, 8:43 pm
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Agents, executives and those in the know around the league contend you can learn a lot about the NHLs collective bargaining situation by watching the other top professional sports.

The NFL and NBA both recently braved potential work stoppages and an abbreviated season in basketballs case while reaching for something closer to a 5050 split of league revenues between owners and players.

Under the current collective bargaining agreement the NHL has moved to terminate on Sept. 15, the players received roughly 57 percent of the revenue with a 24 percent salary rollback nestled within the divvying up of profits.

According to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman the league set new records this year by clearing 3.3 billion in revenues, and growing by leaps and bounds.

What that means: Players going from a 57 percent share of the pie to a 5050 split with owners seems like it might be a painful process.

New NHLPA director Donald Fehr was renowned for his hard-line stance while heading the all-powerful MLB Players Association. No surprise, handing NHL players a worse financial deal than the previous CBA doesnt appear to be a palatable option.

"In the NFL there was no question they had profits there, and they still locked the players out," said Fehr, who pointed out that comparing the salary structures in the NBA and NFL to the NHL wasnt an apples to apples likeness.

"Well see what happens when we get to that. The only thing I say is that the sport that is far and away the most stable is baseball. What I can say is that the objective is to get a deal that the players feel is fair and equitable, and there will be overwhelming support for. There are lots of models out there. There are salary cap models and there non-cap models. There are lots of issues that dont go directly to player compensation like revenue sharing and things like that.

"There may be discussions in any numbers of those things, but Im not going to begin guessing at that. To the extent the game can grow is in everybodys interest. Its a credit to the players and its a credit to the management. We have to hope that continues and nothing interrupts it."

That's the rub.

With the NBC Sports Network partnership and the popularity of ventures like the Winter Classic and the 247 HBO documentary series, the NHL is as healthy as its ever been. Money is pouring into the NHLs coffers like never before and business is booming.

But its also less than 10 years removed from a lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 hockey season and brought the sport to its knees.

Teams like the Phoenix Coyotes and New Jersey Devils are in dire financial straits, and a handful of other NHL franchises have changed hands within the last year. Thats normally not the sign of a league that could survive a long work stoppage.

Thats the backdrop for Fehr and Bettman as they sit down to begin informal talks over the next few weeks, and set up a timetable for negotiations that will likely last all summer.

In fact, many believe the NHL could very well go through the same thing that the NBA endured last fall.

An entire year wouldnt be lost, but theres a very realistic scenario that could have the NHL suffering through a work stoppage lasing into December or January.

The abbreviated NBA season wiped out the sometimes sleepy months of October and November while starting right around Christmas, and it hasnt hurt their ratings or attendance down the stretch into the playoffs. The NHL might just be looking at the same kind of scenario this season as both sides engage in a staring contest that could have lasting implications on the NHL.

Bettman has never sat across the table from as worthy an adversary as Fehr.

The former baseball union head has the undivided backing of a players group that has been at times a fractured group.

And thats being kind to union heads that have been railroaded in early morning meetings, or even done hard time for robbing the players.

Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference was a former player rep in Boston and has a good working knowledge of the landscape entering into this Summer of the CBA. The Bs defenseman knows the delicate balance at play between a good deal and one that's for the good of the sport.

Youre keeping a watchful eye. Its obviously important stuff and the business is great right now, said Ference. You look at how far the NHL has come from since the last lockout and its been great. We just want to keep it going. It sucked to sit out a whole year. The proof is in the pudding where the league has come from with growth and viewership . . . the parity is unbelievable. The game is working. Youve got these passionate fans that love to watch us play, and you dont want to impede that.

There were some bitter pills in the last CBA. There were a lot of concessions made there, but when you sign your name then you deal with it. You dont want to hit any speed bumps this time around. When things are going well you want to keep them going well. But in saying all that: the business is the business. Its such an unknown about what each side wants. Once you get those meetings under your belt youll get a much better sense.

So hockey fans should take heart.

There could be a few bleak, desolate months in autumn after a mind-numbing summer full of CBA jargon and breathless executive meetings. But the formula is there for the players and the league to play their game of chicken while still saving the season.

In the worst case scenario the NHL should be back in January as the NBA was this season, or there could no schedule interruption at all, as was the case with the NFL.

Nobody wants a work stoppage in pro sports outside of the bean counters.

But theres no easy way to slice through negotiations when two sides of a business are dividing up a 3 billion puck pie.