EDMONTON - With the start of the NHL season less than a month away and CBA negotiations bogged down in obstinate rhetoric, the NHLPA is stuck in a terrible spot.
The players have two choices right now, and both of them are bad.
They can sign off on a Band-Aid deal that’s going to cut salaries by almost 20% and would likely lead the NHL back to the exact same place five years from now, or stand their ground and start losing money they will probably never recover.
From bad to worse, it gets.
With less than 30 days to go before the real deadline — opening night on Oct. 11 — Gary Bettman appears to already have the players right where he wants them.
“You have to balance it out and decide what’s better, holding out for a better deal or playing for a worse one,” said Edmonton Oilers player rep Devan Dubnyk. “We feel we deserve a fair deal. We’re prepared to wait.”
For how long, before the law of diminishing returns two-hands them across the head? If this stretches into months, or even wipes out the entire season like it did in 2004-05, the players will never recover those lost wages.
Giving up, say, $4 million in annual salary in a fight for 6% more hockey related revenue is nobody’s idea of smart, but the players say this is as much an issue of principle as business.
“I think the guys realize that if we keep giving and keep giving, it’s not going to leave us anywhere down the road,” said Oilers winger Ryan Jones. “We want to set this game up for the future of the NHL, not just the next five or six years.”
They believe the deal put forth by the NHL is a temporary solution that doesn’t address the fundamental issue of weak markets: if starving NHL teams can’t survive a salary cap based on 57% of $3.3 billion right now, how will they survive a salary cap based on 47% of $5 billion six or seven years from now?
“That’s the problem with tying (a salary cap to revenues) without revenue sharing (among teams),” said Dubnyk. “No business wants to give up money, but this is not your typical business situation, and in order to make the NHL healthy it has to happen.”
According to Forbes magazine, the Leafs, Rangers and Canadiens took in $527 million between them last season and turned profits of $81.8 million, $41.4 million and $47.7 million.
The Oilers, according to Forbes, made a $17.7 million profit last year.
They’re all doing fine.
And they’re not all that interested in reaching into their own pockets to help out their partners at the other end of the spectrum, where the likes of Columbus, Long Island and Phoenix lost almost $50 million — not when reaching into the players’ pockets is easier.
“We agree with the NHL that there are issues that need to be worked out and that’s what we’re trying to do,” said Dubnyk. “The other sports leagues have found a way to do that and we need to do the same thing.”
The NHL has a limited revenue-sharing plan, but it’s small, restrictive and isn’t working. Teams must play to 80% arena capacity (about 14,000) to qualify for a full share of $10 million while large markets, like the Islanders, Ducks and Stars, aren’t even eligible.
“It’s very minimal revenue sharing right now, especially when you compare it to the amount of revenue sharing in other leagues that are successful,” said Dubnyk. “It doesn’t even compare.”
So the players wait, staring at a fork in the road that, as of right now, leads nowhere good.