September 16, 2004
Owners are to blame for NHL's salary insanity
By CHRIS STEVENSON -- Ottawa Sun
So, hockey fan, no NHL for you. You are no doubt feeling as bitter as Brett Hull and as frustrated as a ticket scalper at a Carolina Hurricanes game. The owners and players are as far apart as Miikka Kiprusoff's pads on a Scott Niedermayer shot.
So, where to direct your venom?
When billionaires and millionaires can't figure out how to split up a $2-billion US pie, there has to be plenty of blame to go around. How much goes on the players' plate? Not much.
You cannot blame the players for taking what the owners were willing to give in contracts that were fairly negotiated.
You cannot blame the players' union because it did a better job of negotiating and managing the current collective bargaining agreement. The NHL owners were outmanoeuvred from the get-go.
Salary disclosure, working huge bonuses into what is supposed to be a rookie cap and exploiting the arbitration system have all helped players drive salaries to unprecedented levels. Don't blame the players' union for doing its job well.
Don't blame players for having an average salary of about $1.8 million for playing a game. That's what you earn these days in the NHL. Ridiculous? Yup. But don't blame them for being in an industry where people are willing to pay $100 a night to watch them work 12 minutes. Now the owners are locking out the players, trying to get the players to knuckle under and save the owners from themselves.
The players have made it clear they are willing to give back (they've offered to take wage cuts and restructure the rookie cap, accept a luxury tax and revenue sharing), but the owners want nothing less than a salary cap (or cost certainty, as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman likes to put it). How is that negotiating?
DON'T NEED SALARY CAP
There are at least a couple of ways to come up with a deal that would give the owners what they need -- protection from themselves -- without having a salary cap.
An entry-level system that eliminates the ridiculous bonuses that sees rookies make $5 million and revamped salary arbitration could give the owners what they need. Salary arbitration is one area where one owner can affect the business of his 29 partners. One overpriced contract becomes the gold standard for all players with similar numbers and forces teams to pay or lose the player to unrestricted free agency.
Limit how much of a raise players can be granted in arbitration and that will control costs. That's the hill upon which owners should be fighting their battle.
Bettman said while announcing the lockout, the owners "had no choice" but to take that step. It's a self-serving statement. Of course the owners had a choice.
The Disney Co. had a choice when it gave Paul Kariya $10 million a year. Washington's Ted Leonsis had a choice when he gave Jaromir Jagr $11 million a year.
They have a choice now. The owners brought the NHL to where it finds itself -- they are to blame -- and they are the ones making the "take-it-or-leave-it" demands?
That's not negotiating.
The players didn't create this mess, but they are willing to help clean it up. Don't blame them this morning.