The View From Wisconsin

Just a random set of rants from a Sports Fan from Wisconsin.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Closer to Something

I have, over the last several months, attempted to ignore the negotiations (or lack thereof) between the NHL and the NHLPA. The move was an attempt on my part to regain my sanity, as the weekend after the cancellation of the season nearly brought me to the brink.

This past week, however, I was intrigued by reports surfacing in the press and among the hockey community in general that the NHL had decided not to pursue the use of replacement (or, as Gary Bettman recently described them, "different") players. The gist of the reason for the change appeared to be simple: a majority of owners refused to play with anyone other than the "real" NHL players.

Imagine my surprise when I start reading the smattering of articles coming from the Great White North about this change in the league's strategy. To a man, the writers in the Canadian press seemed to believe that this was a brilliant move by the league, because it stripped the PA of its only means of "keeping its members in line" – the threat of replacements. Added to this was a liberal amount of references to the PA's "Kool-Aid" – a somewhat backhanded reference to the Jonestown cultists in the late 1970's.

The irresponsibility of writers likening union membership to being in a cult aside, it's nothing short of idiocy to believe that the league's decision not to pursue replacements somehow works against the players. The only advantage it gives to the league is that a majority of its owners are intelligent enough to realize they'd lose even more money by icing scab players from beer leagues than they would by staying shuttered. Not choosing the legal slippery slope that replacements would bring is just smart from both a business and legal point of view.

It does, however, lead to an interesting position the league has put itself in. They have essentially said with this decision that they will either play with the "real" players come fall, or not at all. Given that Bettman has essentially guaranteed that there will be hockey this fall, it would be a huge public relations blunder if they chose to extend the lockout come October.

The dynamics of the Board of Governors seem to suggest that the so-called "big spending" clubs – Toronto, Detroit, Philadelphia, et al. – all came down decidedly on the side of not icing replacements. This is in contrast to the "small market" teams (Florida, Anaheim, Nashville, etc.) who have been adamant about having "cost certainty" (read: $36 million salary cap, sal-a-ry-cap, sal-a-ry-cap). It appears that the Big Spenders have had enough of this talk, and want to get something done before they really start to lose money.

It used to be bad enough that the NHL season was held hostage by nine owners who wanted "cost certainty"; now, there's another faction that is holding the league hostage by saying, "we're not going to agree to putting replacements on the ice." If it means anything, this new faction is larger, consisting of 10 to a dozen owners. Does that mean the NHL wouldn't pursue using replacements? No, but the vote wouldn't be more than a bare majority – and it's even questionable if it would be a majority. It wouldn't take much to convince four more owners to vote against using replacements.

What's even more maddening is that, if the reports are even close to being accurate, the financial proposals that are being considered currently are astounding. If what's reported to be on the table right now – some form of linkage between payroll and revenues, minimum floors for payroll, drastic changes to the entry-level system – were on the table back in September, we'd be talking about the Stanley Cup playoffs instead of Kool-Aid.

The owners cannot realistically afford to not play a full slate of hockey for 2005-06. The players already realize that there has to be some sort of cap on salaries, preferably one that is related to revenues. Those are two definite motivating factors that lead you to believe that the two sides are getting closer – even if it is by default.