EDMONTON - After playing the villains to perfection in their last hard-line negotiation with the National Hockey League, it’s strange seeing the NHLPA wearing white hats this time around.
OK, those hats aren’t exactly wedding-dress white, more like storm-cloud grey, but the soon-to-be-locked-out players are certainly not being cast as the money-grubbing mercenaries they were before.
In 2004 it was black and white. And the players wore the Johnny Cash colours. Despite a two-tiered system that saw big-market teams spending twice what small-market teams could afford, and small-market teams unable to compete and struggling to stay alive, the NHLPA refused to budge on a salary cap and an entire year was lost.
They were roasted in the court of public opinion, labelled greedy swine who sewered the season.
Not this time. While nobody can really understand why guys making Brinks trucks full of money to play a game would dig their heels in on a few percentage points, people are starting to understand why the players have become so frustrated with their league.
“Definitely,” said Oilers winger Ryan Jones. “The majority of people are looking at this and saying one side is being a little more realistic than the other.”
The owners, after all, got everything they wanted in the last lockout — including a salary cap tied directly to league revenue, a massive 24% rollback on existing contracts and a cap on entry level deals.
And in the seven years since, NHL revenue has grown by 33%, from $2.2 billion to $3.3 billion.
And now they’re asking for another salary roll back?
The players are not without fault — a 50-50 split is the entire planet’s definition of fair, so why can’t it be theirs? — but the black hats and dunce caps are on the other side of the table this time.
You watch owners argue that the current CBA is a death sentence, that they’d rather shut down the league than live with it for another year, while scrambling to sign as many long-term contracts as possible before it expires, and it’s hard to take them seriously.
Minnesota’s Craig Leipold spends $196 million on a pair of 13-year contracts (exploiting loopholes in the NHL’s own cap in the process), and he’s going to sit at the negotiating table and say he can’t make money, and that contracts must be limited to five years?
Jordan Eberle is supposed to take a pay cut to help him out?
A lot, if not most, of struggling NHL teams are in trouble mainly because of the owners, because they’ve put teams in places they shouldn’t be or because their teams have been poorly managed. Or both.
Atlanta didn’t work. Florida doesn’t work. And Phoenix, with a rink about 40 minutes from downtown, is having trouble drawing hockey fans in the middle of the desert?
Seriously, nobody saw this coming?
If I’m a player, I have a hard time passing the hat to help Charles Wang cover up his mistakes on Long Island, or to Band-aid the decade-long train wreck that is Columbus — not without first seeing the rich teams making more of an effort to help the poor.
The owners, quite simply, need to be better at their jobs. They’re hurting the NHL more than player salaries are.
“(The NHLPA) gave a lot of money in the last lockout with the hope of parity among the league,” said Jones. “But it seems like the bottom teams are still struggling to make it. If we give again this time in the same way we did last time, what is the guarantee that we’re not in this exact same situation the next time it comes around.”