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Game of Thrones: The NHL labor talks are on

By Tom

Word has come out from a number of sources (including The Hockey News) that the National Hockey League sent word to the NHL Players Association that it intended to let the current management-labor collective bargaining agreement expire as of September 15, 2012.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman & NHLPA Executive Director Don Fehr

In shorthand, the NHL labor talks officially opened.

It’s a fascinating time for negotiations to occur.  By most accounts, things have never been better – financially – for the NHL.  Game attendance is on an upswing.  American television viewership for the all-important Stanley Cup playoffs is sky high, with 14 games garnering over 1 million viewers as of yesterday afternoon (compared to 9 games at this point in the playoffs last season).  And this has built upon positive momentum – television, online and subscription-wise – that’s been happening since the beginning of the season.

Of course, a 10-year, $2 billion American television rights deal with NBC Universal starting this season never hurts.  That deal replaced an unheard-of  (at least for a major sports league) revenue sharing agreement that the NHL has been laboring under since 2004.  (Canadian television deals will continue through 2014.)

So the money is there.  That’s not to say all is sunshine and roses, though.

- The NHL’s disciplinary system has been criticized as inconsistent at best.  It’s on-ice officiating hasn’t done much better.

- Whether simply better diagnosed or the result of changes in the game (or perhaps the behavior of those playing), the perception of a concussion epidemic in the NHL is out there.  Even scarier is what scientific research is telling us about the long-term effects of concussions.  Do you think the players might have some issues regarding their safety in this fast-moving, often violent game?

- The NHLPA has been in a bit of disarray, only calming down upon the arrival of former Major League Baseball union chief Don Fehr as Executive Director.  Fehr’s only been in place since December 2010, however, and has had to mend fences and build relationships within his union community.

- Realignment.  The NHL came up with a plan yet didn’t consult the NHLPA.  The NHLPA refused to endorse the plan.  Realignment, for the time being, was shelved.  (And Blue Jackets fans have another year of enduring 10:30PM start times more often than just about any other fans in the NHL.)

- Then there’s the ever-evolving landscape of sports and the hardball fight over dollars and cents.  Both the National Football League and the National Basketball Association endured lockouts in 2011, the gist of which was an argument over how much revenue each side of the table got.  In the NFL’s case, the owners’ share went from 47 to 52-53 percent of revenues.  With the NBA, the players saw a 57 percent revenue share drop to 51.15 percent.  And remember, the last NHL lockout in 2004-05 saw a 24 percent rollback in player salaries.

As far as one might think this topic is from the world of penalty kills, slap shots and goalies standing on their heads, it’s much closer than it appears.  Today’s news tells us that the current collective bargaining agreement – the rules that allow the players to take the ice to play NHL hockey – is dead as of the opening of training camp.  If the two sides can’t come together on a new agreement this summer, we’re looking at a lockout.  That means no hockey.

There’s also a critical local aspect to a lockout in this particular season.  Stretch a lockout out long enough into the season, and that means no NHL All-Star Game.  The 2013 All-Star Game, of course, is scheduled to be played at Nationwide Arena.  Now, the last two lockouts resulting in cancelled All-Star Games (1995 – San Jose and 2005 – Atlanta) saw the game played at the intended site…in each case, two years later.  But make no mistake about it, cancelling an NHL All-Star Game hurts.

Indeed, these are tense times in the business of hockey.  This fan hopes that the two sides figure out a way to come together and keep the boys skating for years to come.

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