Most NHL fans can agree that the summer of 2004 was the beginning of the most excruciating year-long period in the history of the league. Coming off an entertaining Tampa Bay Lightning cup victory, fans looked towards the future with slight optimism that the players and owners would reach a deal before the pre-season started. Optimism turned into pessimism as the months passed by and an entire season was wiped out. Unfortunately, history may repeat itself this year.
Owner vs. Owner?
Despite league revenue growing to all-time highs, the profitability of most NHL franchises in the current landscape is in doubt as player expenses soar to levels beyond the budgets allotted for small market teams. Some franchises are guaranteed money makers: the Canadiens, Maple Leafs, and Rangers. Add in the Flyers, Bruins, Blackhakws, Red Wings, and Canucks, and you have 8 teams in strong markets that can survive any storm. However, franchises such as the Blue Jackets, Coyotes, and Islanders are hemorrhaging money and simply cannot cover rising player expenses. The growth in revenue for the larger markets contributes to the overall growth of the league, whereas the small market franchises simply afford to build contenders.
Current Owner Proposal
Even though the small market franchises have issues surviving in the current landscape, the current proposal put forth by the owners is a slap in the face to the players:
- Reducing player hockey related revenues to 46% from 57%.
- Players need to play 10 seasons in the league before becoming UFA.
- Limiting player contracts to 5 years
- No more salary arbitration.
- Entry- level contracts limited to 5 years instead of 3.
There’s a starting point, and then there’s an utter lack of respect for the players. In addition, it’s reported that the league also wants to institute a 24% salary rollback similar to the last agreement, further decreasing the revenue share for players. Donald Fehr, executive director of the NHLPA, has proven in the past with MLB to be a strong combatant fighting for players’ rights. This situation is no different and things will become uglier before they get better.
The NHL, despite it’s recent growth, is still teetering on becoming a fringe sport in the United States. Cup victories by prime markets over the past five years and the Winter Classic have rejuvenated some interest from casual fans, but another lockout, especially a prolonged shut-down of the league, can have massive ramifications on the sports viability in the United States. Small market franchises will surely crumble and fan interest will dissipate, resulting in a situation where the NHL might have to undergo a massive reconfiguration for survival. Another season of no hockey will also deter passionate NHL fans and drive big name players to leagues such as the KHL. As a dedicated Bruins fan, I can only hope that negotiations go more smoothly over the next two months; otherwise, we may be in line for a second year without hockey since 2004.