Plenty of blame to go around in assessing NHL lockout

By on February 2, 2005

As winter trudges on, there is a sense that something is missing from the landscape. It’s certainly not snow, cold temperatures, or the increasingly boring NBA. No, it is the National Hockey League that has been missing in action, as it has been since the current owners’ lockout started on Sept. 16.

As we sit here in February with the NHL likely to become the first major sports league to lose an entire season because of labor issues, there is plenty of blame to go around.

Owners want a form of cost certainty to combat rising player salaries and falling revenues. Under the old system, player salaries took up roughly 70 percent of each team’s annual revenue, by far the greatest such percentage in sports.

At the top of the owners’ wish list is a hard salary cap, which is unacceptable to players. Obviously, they prefer a free market system where they can take as high a salary as an owner will give them.

The most ridiculous part of all is that the two sides went nearly three months, from September to December, without even meeting as games were chopped off the schedule. That was outrageous.

But on Dec. 9, the players association proposed a 24 percent rollback in player salaries, a stunning offer from an association that seemed bent on not giving up anything. Even more stunning was the decision by the owners to reject the offer outright and respond with a weak counter-proposal that was in turn rejected by the players.

The problem is that not enough owners emerged from their mansions in the meantime to say, “Let’s get this done and save the season.” Even if the Dec. 9 offer wasn’t accepted, it should have been the starting point for further negotiations that could have saved the season. Instead, I firmly believe the NHL sits at the brink of total destruction, which is a shame.

How did it arrive at this cliff? Several ways. The first problem was the expansion of the 1990s into markets in which hockey simply doesn’t work. There is no need to have NHL hockey in Atlanta, Miami, Phoenix, Nashville and Columbus, Ohio, for starters. Those teams are losing money, generally have low attendance figures, and are diluting the talent pool in the league.

At the same time the league was expanding, so were player salaries. However, this was primarily due to foolishness on the part of owners. No one held a gun up to their head and made them give ridiculously bloated contracts to top players, thus driving up the asking price of mid-level players. The owners largely created this mess, yet now they sit and complain about the sorry state of their finances.

The players don’t get it either. They don’t seem to understand that the league cannot survive operating under the old system. It was a system that saw franchises in Buffalo and Pittsburgh resort to filing for bankruptcy, and most teams posting a significant financial loss. No owner in his right mind would put up with that for long, even if he brought it upon himself. But the players seem to think everything is just swell.

Television ratings have been going steadily downward in the NHL, and attendance has followed. If people aren’t coming to the games, that’s less revenue, and it puts more of a strain on owners with large payrolls to meet.

The lockout itself is doing incredible damage in that regard. There is already a general perception that the league is getting boring with a lack of offense, and sitting out an entire season is not the way to win people back. Commissioner Gary Bettman, playing the big tough guy, seems oblivious to these obvious realities.

However, it is hard to imagine that there is enough time left to reach an agreement and have a season. Even if there is one, it would be so short that questions of legitimacy could be raised.

So hockey fans can sit back, watch the American Hockey League, college hockey, and just hope that the NHL gets its act together in time for next season. It should never have come to this.


About A. J. Atchue