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Five On Five: Why You Should Be Worried About A Lockout vs. Why Hockey Is The Best Sport Out There

Free agency has started off slower than a Coyotes/Blues game, so I’d figure we’d give that a rest for awhile. Let’s start things off with a very unsettling picture of Gary Bettman.

God, I just want to hit him in the face.

This week’s Five on Five deals with a more important issue: The ongoing CBA negotiations between the NHL and the NHLPA. Things got a little hairy yesterday when the NHL formally submitted their first CBA proposal to the NHLPA. Under the new provisions, players would see their revenue cut from 57% to 46%, and GMs would see severe limitations placed on contract negotiations with their players (including both entry-level and resigning contracts limited to 5-year deals, with players not eligible for free agency until ten years).

It’s a tricky situation. The revenue reduction proposal has ben meet with severe scorn by the NHLPA. While it’s safe to say the league is certainly trying to low-ball the NHLPA into compromising around 50%, the union will certainly have a sour taste in their mouths going forward in negotiations.

As far as the contract limits are concerned, I’m a bit of a mixed bag. I certainly understand the want and need for long-term contracts for players like Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Quick, but it also leaves the door open for GMs to make lucrative UFA offers to attract star players to their team. While the salary cap certainly limits this to an extent, it’s becoming less of a balance and more of an obstacle, as GMs are finding more and more ways to get around it. So far, the most common method involves a player signing a long term deal, then dividing up their salary and paying them more up front and less down the line, making their average cap hit decline. The Parise contract is a perfect example of this. Notice how he makes $12 million his first season with the Wild, then only $1 million for his last season. By unevenly distributing the $98 million in his contract, Minnesota GM Chuck Fletcher has found a very cost-effective loophole for a talented player.

The new CBA would eliminate this practice, placing a five-year limit on all contracts and requiring a salary evenly distributed over those five years. I like the five-year deal because it ensures free agency will be more exciting, with players actively moving around each year. However, it does place a burden on GMs and players trying to create long-lasting working relationships. The “cookie-cutter” mentality behind all contracts being five years is a bit monotonous. The “ten years before you can become a UFA” alleviates some of this concern, but it also places a huge burden on players: You have to play with a single club for ten years before you can seek other options? I’m a huge fan of that idea for clubs like Columbus trying to recoup their farm systems, but as a player, it places a huge burden on you at the beginning of your career. Think about it: once you’re drafted, you’re with that club for a DECADE. That means you won’t be a true UFA until you’re in your 30s. Yeesh.

What many people forget is that trades are still options. Having five-year contracts gives a GM more security when making trades. They don’t have to worry about trading for a one-year contract player, only to have them walk at the end of the season.

I’m a fan of this idea, but I’d make one adjustment:

My idea: All entry-level contracts for players will be five-years. A player can become a UFA after five years. When a player becomes a UFA after those five years, he is allowed to re-sign with their current team for UP TO ten years, BUT NO LESS THAN FIVE. If he decides to sign with another team, he will only be allowed to sign five years. At the end of those five years, he get the same deal: he can re-sign for up ten years (but no less than five) with his current club, or sign with another team for up to five years.

This still places a cap on the amount of years, but it also gives both players and GMs the flexibility they need to negotiate contracts. Both have more options in establishing working relationships. After five years, a player can assess what his current club has given him, and whether or not he wants a change of scenery.

Also, another thing? If the NHLPA wants to be taken seriously, they need to redesign their website. Did you see this thing? It looks worse than a Fansided blog (Aw, that’s mean…).

But like I said, this is a huge issue that’s going to heat up over the next few weeks.

 This Week’s Five on Five:

Five Reasons Why You Should Be Worried About A Lockout

Vs.

Five Reasons Why Hockey Is The Best Sport Out There

The point of this article is to make you realize how important these negotiations really are, and how much the sport means to both the players and the fans. Let’s do it. First up…

Five Reasons Why You Should Be Worried About A Lockout

Besides the whole “No hockey” thing.

#1. Revenue Cuts

Puck Daddy had a phenomenal article this week, where he interviewed an anonymous NHL player involved with the current CBA negotiations. In it, “The Player” mentioned a sticking point for players in negotiations has been the league sharing revenue with its players. At the moment, players make 57% of the revenue of the league. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL owners are trying to negotiate that number down to 50/50 number, similar to their NBA counterparts. Under this revision, players would receive only half of the league’s endorsement and commercial earnings (through their contracts), with the other half being split among the 30 NHL teams and their respective owners. The argument being made is players clearly make enough money with their contracts, and should be willing to take cuts in pay and salary value to support their respective clubs, as well as the league.

This is a very, VERY tangled issue. This isn’t the NBA or the NFL. With the exception of Reebok (the NHL’s supplier and maker of jerseys) and perhaps Bud Light, the NHL doesn’t really have a consistent major commercial sponsor. Sponsors often change frequently, some not even lasting a season. That’s why one year we had Tim Horton’s sponsor the NHL All Star Game, and the next we had Stan Lee and Marvel commission comic book superheroes for each team. Remember that? It was worse than Ghost Rider.

The point is, the NHL has always lacked the commercialized environment other major sports have bathed themselves in over the last twenty years. While the NHL reported record revenues for the past five seasons since the lockout, it’s still been an upward struggle to secure a commercial face for the sport in North America. The players want to keep the game like it is, as does the NHL. But the NHL is faced with the bigger task of securing funds and sponsors without ticking off players or fans (by raising ticket prices). This is going to be the big stick in the mud for both sides, and may result in the first few months of the season being nixed.

#2. Record Revenues for the NHL

While it sounds like a positive, it actually creates more problems for the NHLPA. As I mentioned above, revenue has become a bit of a sticking point in negotiations between the NHL and the NHLPA. With the league recording record revenues, it gives them more leverage over negotiations. They basically could say to the NHLPA, “Who cares what the players make, what we have works, and we’re going to continue to do it.”

According to Puck Daddy:

In 2003-2004, the final season before the lockout, players’ salaries ate up about 74 percent of all the revenue generated by the NHL. In that year, the business was worth about $2 billion.

As we know, in 2011-2012 players received 57 percent of the revenues, which are believed to be in the neighborhood of $3.3 billion. So, over the course of that time revenues have increased by over 50 percent while player costs have only increased by about 15 percent.

 

The CBA worked when it was implemented in 2005, but with the soaring revenue of the league, there’s a severe imbalance in revenue distribution with the current system. The NHL is more than likely going to hide this behind the fact that they want cut player revenue to gain more money to help struggling franchises (like Columbus), and to secure their interests for a Phoenix Coyotes-like situation where they have to step in and take over.

Me, caring? I think they'll buy it.

#3. The Effect It Will Have (And Has Had) On Free Agency

One of the biggest areas of concern for both the union and the NHL has been free agency. Once GMs implemented the standard practice of spreading salaries for a lower average cap hit, the NHL realized it had to make a move to adjust to a more fair, balanced system. That system is going to take awhile to negotiate, and  unfortunately, it’s a huge part of the reason why the CBA negotiations may cause a lockout. Players want more flexibility and longer contracts. GMs want longer contracts and larger cap hits. The NHL is now charged with mediating between its own owners and the players to find a financially sound way for both sides to be happy. It won’t be an easy task.

The impact the CBA negotiations have had on this offseason’s Free Agency are felt widespread across the league. Rick Nash still hasn’t been moved, more than likely because GMs aren’t willing to trade core players when a season may not even happen. Star UFAs were snatched up to long term deals (and perhaps overpaid in the process), because GMs didn’t want to risk signing players on the short term in front of a pending lockout.

The question isn’t if this problem will be solved, it’s how. The solution is going to be a muddling process, and one that will certainly intertwine with the revenue percentage decrease.

#4. GMs Are Caught In The Middle

The 2005-06 lockout was caused by a cash-strapped league trying to fight for more revenue from its players. While the GMs were interested in their players, they were also concerned with the lack of financial security the league was facing. The players had a much stronger hold on the league in negotiations, and were adamantly against the idea of a salary cap (choosing instead to take 5% off of all existing contracts). However, they eventually conceited, and the NHL implemented the salary cap now in place.

Fast forward six years, and it’s a whole new ball game. The NHL definitely holds the cards this time around, and with players already miffed about taking a revenue cut during the last CBA, things won’t be easy. However, the GMs face a much more involved stance this time around. If anything, they are the ones in the spotlight for this negotiation. With free agency and contracts being a high priority in talks, General Managers face the glaring need of limiting not only themselves, but players. It’s a delicate balance, and one that won’t be found easily.

Doug Wilson has spoken in the past about his objection to long term, front-loaded contracts. They put an unneeded strain on the free agency pool, and run the risk of diluting player’s talents and making them harder to trade should they not perform to expectations. However,

#5. Gary Bettman

Man, am I gonna screw these guys.

To be fair, Commissioner Gary Bettman takes a lot of unneeded flack. The CBA negotiations fall mainly into the laps of the players and owners. However, as an overseer, Gary Bettman certainly hasn’t won any awards for his ability to mediate. He let his entire league go to a lockout in 2003-04, and the effects of that are certainly still widespread among NHL fans. Simply put, Bettman needs to place more careful emphasis into monitoring both sides of this negotiation. Without a leader to effectively work as a bridge between both sides, talks could fall apart quickly.

***

As far as what will happen, nobody knows. A CBA could get passed tonight, it could get passed a year from now. The good news is, both sides don’t want another lockout. It happened once already, and both owners and players know losing another season would be an absolute knife into the newly resurrected heart of the National Hockey League. Using that experience as an lesson, both the NHLPA and the NHL have motivation and examples to frame a new agreement that will benefit both sides.

Of course, as fans, we’d all be devastated without hockey. I said last week that getting hit by Murray would be painful, but I’d take ten shots from Chara AND a hipcheck from CrankShaft before I’d consider a whole year without my favorite sport.

Sure, you can take a percentage of my revenue, I'll just take a percentage of your life.

What is it that makes hockey so damn great? Let’s see…

Why Hockey Is The Best Sport Out There

Aside from, you know, being hockey.

#1. Line Changes

This is my favorite, and most often overlooked, reason why hockey is such an amazing and impressive sport to watch.

In football, coaches change players between plays. In baseball, a coach can stop the game to change a tired pitcher and bring in a new one, even between pitches. In basketball, players are swapped out during timeouts, or when someone “fouls” out.

Hockey is the only major sport where the team is required to switch players while the play is still going. It’s an art that is practiced relentlessly by teams and coaches. A hockey player has to remember what line they are on, who they are replacing, and who they are pairing up against on the other team. In addition, they have to be prepared to rework all of that on the fly if a teammate is injured, ejected, or given a penalty.

#2. Fights

You can’t put this into words. There is nothing, NOTHING like watching a fight live at an NHL game. I’d take a two minute hockey fight over a boxing match any day.

#3. Checks

I laugh everytime I see something like this.

With the exception of football, no other sport demands the physicality that hockey does. And at least in football, you get a break in between getting tackled by someone. Hockey? You get hit, you lose a few teeth, you get back up, you keep playing. Similar to fighting, watching a guy lay a check down in hockey is electrifying. Or horrifying, depending on which team you’re rooting for. Players like Milan Lucic could make an entire sport of just checking, and I’d probably watch.

#4. Scoring

Basketball? Oh look, two points. Yay.

Baseball? Home runs are exciting, but scoring a run is pretty routine.

Football? Okay, touchdown celebrations are cool.

But hockey, when that horn sounds, there’s nothing like it.

Especially at the Tank. Scoring in any other sport is expected, but getting a goal in hockey is earned. There’s no standard way to score a goal. In baseball, you hit a ball with a bat. In hockey, sniping, dekeing, muscling your way to the front of the net, each player has their own individual style to score. Watching each player utilize their unique technique is magical. Patrick Marleau on the breakaway? Pavel Datsyuk dangling? Each player brings their own take to the table, and watching them go head-to-head makes hockey a new game each night.

#5. The Fans

Magic.

You guys.

Being a hockey fan isn’t commercialized. It’s glorified. When you’re part of a team, you’re part of a family. You don’t go to a game for a day out and to spot a celebrity (cough cough Lakers). You go to hang out with your family, to watch the people you know and love kick the crap out of the family next door.

"And STAY off my lawn!"

You don’t go to a hockey game. You’re part of the game. You walk into a hockey arena anywhere, whether it’s the Tank, Staples Center, The Joe in Detroit, The Saddledome in Calgary, anywhere. You can feel the soul in that building, vibrating through the seats and shaking its walls. If hockey is a religion, its games are its form of church.

***

Well, it was a bit less stat-filled than my previous Five-on-Five, but I hope once the CBA gets cleared up and GMs start making moves, we’ll have more to write about (no lockout, knock on wood) (I seriously just did).

Have a good week.

-J

Blades of Teal ~ The Final Word On Sharks Hockey.

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