Bobby Ryan is right: it's not really possible to pencil in lengthy CBA negotiations when you are busy scoring goals or blocking shots in Kladno, Magnitogorsk, or Geneva.
However, it's also not easy to tell over 1,000 active players to not work or stay active when the jobs they have committed to will not ask them back. There is always room on a European team's depth chart for a skilled player since the best of the best usually end up in North America. When North America won't have them, choosing Europe seems as easy as picking the ripest apple out of the basket. The play won't be quite as hard, the competition won't be quite as tough, but they're still going to make some money and stay conditioned.
The players don't need the NHL to make their livings, but they certainly want to base their careers there. It's the culture, the sheer amount of money, the stardom and the atmosphere of North American hockey that players aspired to become a part of before they ended up hearing their names called on draft day. The management and ownership of the League strives to maintain that in tandem with the NHLPA. And there's no bigger reminder that there are other fish in the sea than seeing your best talent continue to live their lives without the most competitive and popular hockey league in the world.
If it weren't just business, I'd say it was a bargaining chip. As if everyone who has left for Europe just said, "We don't need you. We can, in fact, get on without you." Unfortunately, it is just business, and most of the players know they will be back once all of this blows over - whether that's this month or next July.
It has been said that the fans have no stake in this because regardless of how many of us decide to not give the NHL our money or how loudly we voice our annoyance at the lack of hockey, the NHL will still be a multi-billion dollar business when the new CBA is negotiated. But both the fan involvement and the fact that the players don't necessarily need the NHL are worth considering in terms of the league's long-term viability. If every CBA negotiation is going to be like this, it might not even be worth it to hold up the National Hockey League as something great to aspire to -- not to mention that the business side of it will eventually begin to suffer.
So, when Bobby Ryan says that players defecting to Europe are "running from the problem", he kind of has a point. One can infer that Ryan and others who share his opinion still uphold the NHL and being an NHL player as things worth fighting for, and they see leaving for Europe as potentially endangering the League itself, not just, say, the first half of this season.
After all, while the players don't necessarily need this league, the league certainly needs them. The coexistence of a management and a players' union that so deeply, deeply lack trust between them is yet another red flag of an unhealthy business being sustained on poor practices.
In the meantime: the most solid, up-to-date news we actually have about the negotiations is the fact that deputy commissioner Bill Daly and NHLPA general counsel Steve Fehr actually spoke on the phone to discuss speaking again in order to schedule a time to speak this week. So they had a phone conversation to schedule a phone conversation to schedule a meeting, if we're to believe the press. These are the salient tidbits of gossip that we are hanging onto in early October.
And, even worse for North American hockey: Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov is stirring up controversy of his own by saying that Russian players might just stay in the KHL after the lockout is over, citing, in addition to the heartwarming prospect of playing in front of their hometowns as superstars, the fact that there is a great deal of money in corporate sponsorship in Russia, perhaps more than players might make in the NHL.
The various labor disputes on our side of the pond could certainly make the KHL an attractive destination for talented players, since the neither the KHL nor its predecessor, the Russian Superleague, suffered any notable labor dispute. While the RSL did not have a union, the Kontinental Hockey League Players Trade Union was formed upon the creation of the KHL in 2008. The KHL, it should be noted, has stricter rules in place than the NHL in some aspects, including a history of "forced" RFA contracts wherein players under 28 have been legally bound to sign offer sheets whether they want to or not, and such decisions were upheld by Russian courts. Maybe having a labor dispute in Russia is more trouble than it's worth, regardless of whether players are happy with the KHLPTU's end of the deal.
All of this speculation notwithstanding: the season was supposed to begin this week, and there is still no end in sight.
Collective bargaining agreement negotiations between NHL players and owners have officially gone from bad to worse. Since last I wrote about this story, no progress has really been made beyond general philosophical talks and fundamental disagreements. If no agreement is reached by September 15th, there will definitely be a lockout of some kind.
Commissioner Gary Bettman’s words during these negotiations on Thursday referred back to the fans in what has universally been regarded as a kind of terrible platitude: “We recovered last time because we have the world’s greatest fans.” To which everyone has said: really? Because they might not fit your definition of “great” if this is allowed to go to yet another lockout.
The pre-lockout NHL in 2004 was struggling, and in some franchises, completely hemorrhaging money. It also has the legacy of being a slap in the face to fans from the actual faces of the league–its players. They refused a salary cap that historically has made leagues more competitive, as it did for the NBA in the 1980’s. It took a long time to convince the NHLPA that the concept of revenue sharing would not negatively impact their job security. In fact, it seems to be getting easier and easier for players to get their big paydays–such has become the level of parity.
When we refer to “new fans” of the game, we are invariably by this point referring to fans who came into the post-lockout NHL which has enjoyed unprecedented levels of success, record high television ratings in the United States and rising interest in even the most nontraditional hockey markets.
But the current CBA negotiations are moving away from the compromise the players and owners made in 2005. If this goes to a lockout, all of those new fans will give it a legacy of being the fault of the owners as they attempt to gain more control over the success they have had over the last six seasons. This includes having more control over the way that players receive their salary, changing not only contract length, but the rules of free agency, possibly tying players to the team that drafted them, barring a trade, for the majority of their careers. Obviously, the players don’t want this, for very personal reasons.
Here’s the other thing though: according to NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr, the reason that talks are continually breaking down is purely economic. The two sides cannot agree on how to divide league revenue–i.e. what percentage of the money should be spent on what (and whom). So, while the most shocking demands to come out of CBA meetings have been related to player contracts, the “philosophical issues” still come back to dollar signs and how they are divvied up.
Most fans–even hardcore fans–can’t get a handle on that issue or how it works. But most of them will have a lot easier of a time siding with the players when all they seem to want is a somewhat similar agreement to the one that brought them into the 2005-06 season. And when the most comforting words from the league’s commissioner place the burden of the NHL surviving on its fans, even in a poetic sense, things clearly do not look promising.
As much as we fans like to think that we could make this happen, we’re only a part of the equation. The players have to agree to play, and the owners have to manage their businesses. On the surface, it’s a straightforward arrangement.
Fans who knew the NHL before the lockout know by now that it’s a business that won’t respond directly to logic. But the fans who have arrived on the scene since 2005 might not have such an easy time. For both well-established franchises and the most far-flung corners of the league, very little can be gained from postponing some kind of agreement. You can’t count on fans you patronize.
And anyway, the NHL recovered after the previous lockout not because of its already-existing wonderful fans, but because of its improved product, aggressive marketing, and suspense associated with emerging young talent — all of which created new fans. These are the fans who are actually creating the revenue that the NHL is so dearly enjoying, and these are the fans who are going to be less likely to spend more money on hockey in 2013-14 if we lose yet another whole or partial season.
Bettman’s quote is an attempt to completely deflect blame from the ownership as well as the players for the potential loss of a season–and it’s just flat-out incorrect.