NHL labour pains reborn

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:12 AM ET

After shutting down for a full season, the National Hockey League managed to avoid any serious labour unrest last year.

But some player agents see the storm brewing once again.

In theory, it's the duty of the NHL Players Association to crunch numbers, but these days, the PA doesn't do much unless it first gets the approval of NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly.

So the agents did it. And they don't foresee the kind of escrow payments Daly would want to bring to the fore.

The escrow payments, for those who didn't memorize all 15 volumes of the collective bargaining agreement, are the amounts deducted from the players' salaries to cover the owners' over-spending.

Last year, the escrow payments were 12%, but because the PA allowed the league to plug in an almost-random number which was easily surpassed, those payments were refunded.

This year the agents are convinced there will be no refunds. And the amount the players can expect to pay is how much?

"According to our calculations, it's going to be 17.5%," one agent said.

"That might be a bit high," another said, "but it's definitely going to be in double digits. There's no way to know exactly until the season opens, but it looks like somewhere between 12% and 14%."

Most fans don't care a lot. They see projections like this and they shrug their shoulders. They feel that the players are well paid and if they have to give some of it back, so what?

Also, after a full year of reading about labour negotiations instead of hockey, they're sick of the turmoil.

But the fact remains that if this season turns out to be the kind of economic kick in the tender parts that the agents predict, there will be even more trouble on the labour front.

This is the second year of the deal and after three years, the players have the right to terminate it.

A lot of fans -- and a lot of players and their agents for that matter -- still don't understand the ramifications of the CBA.

Fans see all the big-dollar free-agent signings and the whopping arbitration awards and they think that the owners are overspending again.

They are. But they're spending the players' money. Once the salaries exceed 54% of league revenues, the players have to make up the shortfall. That's where the escrow comes in.

Salaries have moved up across the board on a league-wide basis. Way up. But percentage-wise, "reported revenues" haven't kept pace in relation to the salary cap.

There was no reason to expect that they would. During Gary Bettman's tenure as commissioner, the only serious revenue increases were brought about by expansion.

With no more expansion on the radar screen, there will be no major increases in revenues. It's not going to come from television, and even though some markets are raising their ticket prices, those increases won't come close to matching the increase in salaries.

In Los Angeles, the Times has designated hockey as a "niche sport" and will not cover road games of the Kings or Anaheim Mighty Ducks.

Already, there are rumblings of player discontent. If, for instance, you signed a $5-million post-lockout deal thinking you'd be on the high end, you're going to find yourself earning somewhere in the range of $4.25 million after escrow.

That means you're probably earning half of what you earned before the lockout. And taxes are liable to chop another 50%.

To the average person, that's still a high salary. But hockey players are not average people. They're skilled entertainers who, not long ago, commanded a lot more than they're getting now.

They are seeing a harsh new reality that is hard to stomach. The controls they accepted are certainly not the kind of controls the owners would have agreed to impose on themselves.

So what happens next? Let's just say it's not in the players' nature to capitulate meekly.


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