The excitement surrounding the NHL increases year by year. And considering a recent spike in tickets purchased, record-level TV ratings during the playoffs, and the highest level of talent and parity in the league’s history, one could safely argue that the NHL has never been more popular. Despite ESPN’s best interest, hockey seems to be gaining fans and raking in the cash.
It would be too bad if all that momentum would have to be stopped.
That’s what the league is facing this offseason, as the Collective Bargaining Agreement is back to the headlines and needs to be renewed. With the memories of the lost 2004-2005 season in the back of Commissioner Gary Bettman’s and the owners’ heads, there will be a legitimate interest to bang something out relatively quickly. But it remains to be seen if the NHLPA will be as speedy in trying to get a deal done.
The NHLPA Executive Director, Donald Fehr, is going into his first CBA talks, and his reputation precedes himself. He was hired and promoted by the NHLPA because of his hard stances on behalf of the players, which was exemplified in 1994-1995, when he held the same position for the MLBPA. The season was locked out in the middle of the year and the World Series was cancelled in the worst work stoppage in sports history. Even after the strike ended, he prevented what he considered to be “replacement players” such as Kevin Millar and Damian Miller from joining the MLBPA, robbing them of merchandise money. He also destroyed the Montreal Expos franchise, ending their dream season that was in progress and ticking off the fanbase beyond reparation. Donald Fehr helped oversee one of the worst periods in MLB history, and his blind defense on behalf of the players certainly crippled negotiations.
Gary Bettman’s track record during CBA negotiations is less than stellar, as well. He commissioned over two work stoppages, both in search of a better definition of a salary cap to ease the financial burden on the owners. The introduction of the salary cap would certainly be effective, but its implementation was less than efficient. Owners and players lost buckets of money in a lost season, and the league had a huge black mark on its record to recover from.
This year’s CBA will deal with other things that are less radical than the past few negotiations, mostly a larger salary cap, a new revenue sharing agreement, and a fairer players-owner split. But with these two leaders, Fehr and Bettman, nothing will be a given. We as fans would like to think that something would be agreed upon soon, considering the still-open wound from the ’04-’05 lockout. But nothing’s that simple, and money rules.
On Friday, negotiations will begin. The two sides will go at it, punches will be thrown, and choice words will be shared. Which is apropos of all CBA agreements. But it seems this time there is more at stake than ever, with the league looking to pull closer to the NBA in the hearts and minds of Americans all over the country (if hockey still hasn’t already surpassed basketball). The league can’t afford to deprive fans of a year of Crosby and Malkin and Ovechkin. Fehr and Bettman had better agree on something: the image of the sport depends on it.
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