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Do We Have a Derisive Name for Hockey Yet?

Amidst arguably the most boring Cardinal offseason of the last decade, the owners of the National Hockey League put on a display of true greed damaging a brand still in recovery from its last lockout.

TJ Oshie is shocked that a new CBA has been agreed to in principle. Oshie actually wears his jersey 24/7.
TJ Oshie is shocked that a new CBA has been agreed to in principle. Oshie actually wears his jersey 24/7.
Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE

I don't follow hockey as closely as I do baseball. Or, at least, I don't understand what individual contributions create a goal as well as I do in baseball. Baseball is a series of discrete, related but independent events. The ability to carve out individual contributions is unique to baseball in a way that hockey, football, basketball and soccer cannot and probably never will replicate.

That said, I f**king love hockey games. Today you'll have to indulge my excitement since a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is in place. It was very disappointing to watch the NHL lock its players out this season. Here are a few things you need to know to understand the lockout. (This will likely be very anti-owner. That is a reflection both of my understanding of the situation at hand and my general predilection toward the millionaires as compared to the billionaires who cry poor about player salaries.)

  • Small market teams were struggling to stay afloat. Hockey has a few franchises that were struggling mightily. The Phoenix Coyotes were the most notable but not the only ones. These small market teams weren't generating enough revenue to stay in the black on a year in year out basis. They were fielding bad teams and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. This was creating a dynamic within the owner's group where the small market teams wanted better revenue sharing and the lucrative big market teams (New York and several of the Canadian teams) wanted no part in further subsidizing the small markets at the cost of the bottom line. So they decided to go after the players to do it.
  • The owners needed to be saved from themselves. The owners locked the players out in 2004, which led to the cancellation of the entire season. They needed "cost certainty" (read: a salary cap) because player salaries were just too high. The players simply weren't prepared (or very well represented) at this lockout and got taken to the cleaners by the owners. But, then a funny thing happened. The owners started to maneuver around the CBA salary cap and it wasn't just the big market teams that would do it. If they offered players a long enough contract, thereby reducing the average annual salary, they could sign players for more money but stay under the cap. It wasn't just the big market teams doing that either - the Minnesota Wild did it in the face of the upcoming season also. The last CBA was everything the owners wanted at the time and then they undermined it until it wasn't effective.
  • The players saw this one coming. This time around the players knew a lockout was coming. Players had been fortifying their financial positions over the last few years to weather a lockout. The intensity of the disagreement wasn't a surprise like it was in 2004-2005. The union hired Don Fehr, who might be the best labor negotiator on the planet. The players weren't about to get rolled like they did in 2004.

So everyone knew this was going to happen. The owners were trying to quell problems in their ranks. They needed to close loopholes in the CBA. What were they looking for?

  • Fix the salary cap. As I mentioned above, the salary cap was a mess and the owners wanted to close loopholes to preserve the spirit that hadn't previously been captured in the letter of the agreement.
  • Decrease the player share. NHL players received 57% of revenue under the 2005 CBA. The owners wanted to reduce that. It's hard to be particularly sympathetic to the owners on this one and their initial offers this year included revenue figures that would have reduced the player share below 50%. It was a blatant money grab.
  • Increase the cost controlled years of young players. In the NHL, if you were 27 and had 7 years of service, you could become an unrestricted free agent. The owners initial offer this year would have raised that number to 10 years. Players would have had to spend a decade in the league before they could become true free agents.

So what happened? There was an amazing amount of bullshit along the way. Though one story in particular stands out. Everyone hates Gary Bettman, the NHL commissioner. The guy is an epic tool and he's the only commissioner in the "big four" North American sports to oversee four lockouts. He's unequivocally the worst commissioner of a major sport and an unfettered mouthpiece of the owners.

Anyway, everyone hates Gary Bettman but they're also afraid of Don Fehr. So the owners requested that they select a group of representatives and the players would do the same. After a few days of negotiations, Don Fehr spoke to the press and said, in essence, the sides were close. Minutes later, Gary Bettman spoke to the press and said that Don Fehr had no idea what he was talking about and had, in essence, tanked negotiations with that statement.

But more to the point think about those circumstances for a minute. The owners -- business people by nature who negotiate for a living -- wanted the NHLPA's top negotiator out of the room so that they could talk directly to the players. That's hardly a level playing field rink. The Blues' David Backes said as much to the Post-Dispatch's Jeremy Rutherford in this article (read the whole thing; it's Derrick Goold levels of great reporting) from December.

That’s why after two successful days of negotiations with Bettman and Fehr out of the room, owners told players that Fehr’s inclusion Thursday would be a deal-breaker.

“That was very confusing to a lot of the guys,” Backes said. “Don and (assistant director Steve Fehr), they are the people we chose to represent us. We’re not well-educated businessmen; we’re hockey players. We expressed our views, had some phenomenal discussions with the owners. But we’re not billion-dollar businessmen that cut deals in boardrooms all the time. That’s why we’ve hired Don Fehr.”

This is emblematic of the way NHL owners and the NHL commissioner conduct business. Baseball basically declared a CBA detente and, rather than trying to wring every last penny from the players during bargaining, they began looking to monetize their product by growing it. The NHL does real harm to its product with these lockouts -- that's 4 in the last 20 years -- wondering why they can't make money and tries to fix revenue streams by going after the players. It's a remarkable situation.

But last night, that all came to an end. The NHL reached a labor agreement with the Player's Association. It's worth noting that this is an agreement "in principle" and with the NHL it is entirely possible that this could fall apart. What was the end result? AOL's Sporting news has a great run down which I will summarize:

  • It's a 10 year CBA with a mutual opt out option at 8 years. This was supposed to show fans that it was safe to come back to the sport. No worries for 8 whole years. We're one big happy family again, right? Right?
  • Reducing the Salary Cap. The players are taking a hit in year 2 of the deal (2013-2014 season). There will be a $44M floor and a (roughly) $64M ceiling to payrolls. Teams can buy out two contracts in order to get under the cap without taking a hit against their cap. This is the part of the agreement that effectively reduces the NHLPA's share of revenue.
  • Contract variance. This is the part of the agreement that tries to close the loopholes. It puts restrictions on the year to year salary of a player within a single contract. So no more contracts where a player earns a ton of money one year but significantly less other years. This aims to even out the year-to-year cash flow of a contract and prevent work arounds. "A player's salary may not dip more than 35 percent year-to-year, nor can it drop a total of 50 percent below whatever it is at its highest point." (link 1, link 2)
  • Contract limit. Seven year deals unless you re-sign with your current team who can offer you eight.

So what did the players get? All of that stuff above is for the owners. The players got some unspecified concessions on player pension (which the owners were also trying to reduce the benefits of). It's unclear what those are at this time but that is where the players staked their flag. They also made the owners give ground on the items above (i.e., the owners wanted those items above to be worse for the players than what the final arrangement seems to be) but preserving the heart of their pension system is where Don Fehr and team refused to compromise.

It's hard to explain to baseball fans just how acrimonious and toxic this NHL lockout looked from the outside. The players hate Gary Bettman. The owners were wary of Don Fehr. At one point the NHLPA tried to dissolve the union so that NHL would no longer be exempt from anti-trust laws. The NHL sued the PA to force them to remain a union. This lockout didn't almost end the 2012-2013 season. It almost ended the NHL. Seriously.

Baseball's relative labor peace stands in stark contrast to the NHL. Baseball is in boom times while hockey will be forced to rebuild itself yet again. The St. Louis Blues have the capacity to be great right now. Ken Hitchcock was lured out of retirement and transformed the team last season. The Blues snagged one of the premier young Russian players and convinced another top talent, Jaden Schwartz, to leave college and go pro early at the end of last year. The St. Louis Blues are poised to be very, very good in the next few years. There's hope that the new ownership team will push them to higher payroll levels as well. That's part of why this lockout was so particularly disappointing on a local level.

But hockey should be back and, clearly, I'm excited by that. It's good for St. Louis that hockey is back. It's exciting to think that the Blues could do something big in the next few years. That's a fun place to be and one that isn't incomparable to the St. Louis Cardinals current position within their division or the history of excellence that both teams have shared. Hockey is really coming back, you guys.

But seriously, do we have a slanderous name for hockey on Viva El Birdos yet? Let's work on that.

Note: I hadn't planned on writing this topic this morning until, you know, they actually agreed to a new CBA. It's possible that some of the details above are inaccurate -- the counteroffers and what not were hard to track -- so if there are factual corrections that need to be made, feel free to let me know in the comments.