NHL owners angled for a fight with their players and got it again, a lockout that spanned 113 days and ultimately delivered some of the financial gains they coveted. The 30 team owners ended up with a new collective bargaining agreement that eventually will shift more money to their side of the ledger, potentially boosting profit margins, with franchise equity values theoretically moving up in lockstep.
The players will be made to do with less, something they reckoned with weeks ago when, amid the bickering quid-pro-quo process, they begrudgingly agreed to settle for 50 percent of all hockey-related revenues (HRR). For at least two seasons, however, players will be guaranteed more than a 50/50 split, because of high cap limits and the so-called “make whole’’ fund of $300 million that owners agreed to set aside to cover any shortfall on deals that players signed prior to the previous CBA’s expiration Sept. 15.
“So it’s probably actually Year 4 that we finally get to a true 50/50,’’ one team executive noted on Monday, some 48 hours after the league and players came to a tentative agreement on the new CBA. “Some clubs won’t like that. It’s not like all clubs like this deal, by any means. But the win here for both sides is that this should be, could be, might be a CBA that could extend for up to 20 years or more.’’
For all the posturing and rhetoric hockey fans have been subjected to by both sides since the summer, 50/50 all along was what the owners wanted most, keeping them in vogue with recent CBA wranglings and triumphs by the NBA and the NFL. Their other major gain came on player contract lengths, which the new deal limits to 7-8 years, with year-to-year variance limitations imposed on salary payouts that should prevent GMs from writing contracts specifically aimed at skirting the salary cap. Previously, there was no limit on contract length.
Toronto, the league’s richest revenue team, led the way in pushing for reform on those so-called long-term “backdiving’’ contracts. A league source on Monday confirmed that San Jose, a mid-tier team in terms of revenue, also adamantly opposed such deals.
Of all that was bargained across the five-plus months, those two changes are the most significant, which on Monday left one prominent agent miffed that the league didn’t push harder for reform in other areas, even ignoring some altogether.
“No-trade contracts, just as one example,’’ he said. “Why, as a GM, would you give them out as routinely as these guys do? That never even got discussed. Or how about the arbitration process? The salaries that get swept into that whole thing probably serve as one of the most inflationary factors in the game. Barely a change to arbitration.
“I get the 50/50 — that’s where the other leagues went, so you had to figure that’s what would happen here. And, yeah, that’s a huge change. But some of what didn’t get touched here, like, say, the age level for free agency, kinda shocks me. It stayed the same. So the players can’t call that a win, per se, but there’s value in the fact that a lot of it didn’t change.’’
Owners also refused or neglected to strike or amend guaranteed contracts, which have remained virtually untouched through generations of CBA negotiations. Guaranteed deals date back decades, to a time when NHLers were paid near pittances. But at least they could count on banking their paltry sums, other than in the very rare instances when GMs triggered buyout clauses (typically at a one-third reduction in overall pay).
Last season, salaries reached an average $2.4 million per player, and the league yet again did not actively pursue a CBA that altered the guarantees. The NFL, the richest of all pro sports, is still the industry leader in not guaranteeing full payment of most contracts.
“It’s pretty clear how Gary’s operated here,’’ said the agent, referring to Gary Bettman, league commissioner for all three lockouts in the game’s history. “If you look at the document, you can tell he’s ignored the input of hockey people, especially his own GMs, who are the guys who have to work with it every day. Nothing changed in no-trades, in arb, in age threshold for free agency . . . guaranteed contracts.
“He’s an extremely bright guy, no one questions that. But I think he thinks his own GMs are dumb. He refuses to listen to most of them, and so you end up with a deal that wins on 50/50 and contract length — very important stuff —but then all this other vital stuff gets left alone.’’
The same agent, who Saturday night noted to the Globe that the CBA was “all but’’ complete some 10 hours before its details were made public, said he figures Bettman will soon be moved off the job. Speculation around Bettman being fired has cropped up in multiple reports around the league since the pact was announced Sunday morning.
“He’ll never be fired,’’ said the agent. “But in a year or two, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him shift to another job in the front office — some advisory role, or Commissioner Emeritus, or whatever.’’
Bill Daly, the league’s deputy commissioner and Bettman’s top lieutenant, is the obvious choice as successor, said the agent. A team executive, while unwilling to agree that a third lockout would lead to Bettman being moved off the job, said Daly would be the likely choice and prohibitive favorite as the next commissioner.
“Gary’s 60 years old, and this is at least an eight-year CBA,’’ said the team executive. “I doubt he’s going to be doing this at age 70. So, sure, I could see a change coming in a few years. Daly’s in his late 40s, very bright and highly respected. He’d be the guy, someone who could carry it the next 15 years.’’
The Board of Governors, led by Boston owner Jeremy Jacobs, meets Wednesday in New York and will vote on the new deal. Bettman will be front and center to explain all the deal’s ins and outs, what he gained, what he left on the table.
“Not everyone is happy,’’ said a league source. “There will be guys in there not happy about the revenue sharing, others who think the cap is too high to start, that it takes too long to get to 50/50. Some are angry over the fact that there are compliance buyouts. I think there will be many angry objections, but I also think it will pass. It’s done . . . we’re moving on.’’