Here we are again. Just eight years after the NHL locked out its players for an entire season after players and owners failed to reach a collective bargaining agreement, the two sides are back in another stalemate. This time, the players have the advantage.
The differences between the lockout of 2004-05 and the potential one this year are stark but yet the emphasis is still the same: Put more money in the owners’ pockets. There is not anything wrong with owners wanting more money. They take a financial risk owning an NHL team and many owners are losing cash by keeping the doors open.
But simply put, the players are better off than they were eight years ago.
The biggest difference is the star power in the league. In 2004, hockey was waiting for its next Wayne Gretzky. The top players of 2004 did not carry the same clout that the stars of 2012 do. The stars in 2004 were not household names. No offense to Martin St. Louis, Mike Modano, or Joe Thorton but they do not make fans turn heads like Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, or Steven Stamkos.
Star power is what drives any sport and having stars will only help the players’ marketability as a whole.
Another key difference is players have another option they did not have in 2004. The Russian-led KHL would love nothing more than for the NHL to crumble so it can become the world’s elite hockey league. The KHL is being supported by government and top business officials in Russia. Despite smaller arenas and less revenue, players’ salaries in the KHL are thought to be fairly high.
The Russian government does not release salary figures but it is thought that a mid-range NHL player would make roughly the same amount playing in Russia. This may not satisfy athletes like Crosby, but it was enough for former Jackets players Curtis Sanford and Sami Lepisto to sign contracts in Russia for the upcoming season.
The KHL has made a rule that it will allow its teams to sign up to three NHL locked out players without penalty.
In 2004-05, NHL players went all over the world just to keep in shape for minimal amount of money. Perhaps, many will go to the KHL and drive up its league at the expense of the future of the NHL.
What the NHL ended in 2005 with its agreement with players was “fair-market value” by instituting a salary cap. What the NHL desperately does not want to do is to go back to the fair market system it once had. Having a league like the KHL will increase the fair market value of a player and thus make some NHL teams less able to sign talent. Good for players, bad for most owners.
The final big difference between then and now is an American TV contract. Comcast (parent of NBC and NBC Sports) have an American TV deal valued at $200 million per year. That figure is $200 million more than what the NHL had to work with in 2004 as ESPN had killed its previous deal.
This is income that owners do not want to lose and gives the players greater leverage in asking for a higher piece of the pie.
But since the owners want to shrink the players’ slice from 57 percent to 43 percent, the likelihood of the NHL starting its season on time is becoming slim. A number of owners are doing quite well but many more are not turning a profit.
Players have conceded that they will take a smaller paycheck from the owners but the two sides are still far apart with the deadline 12 days away. But it appears that the owners will have to bend more than the players. Given history, this might take a while.