Jim Kelley
Thursday January 10th, 2008

In a recent interview with The Buffalo News, newly minted NHL Players Association boss Paul Kelly was asked about the 600-plus page Collective Bargaining Agreement, a document forged in the wake of the season-long lockout of 2004-05 and one that both the union and the league are still trying to comprehend fully.

Kelly, a lawyer by choice and commitment, was -- strangely enough -- direct and to the point: "It's an impossible thing to read. It's a horrible thing. I was a lawyer for 27 years, and this thing is just lawyered to death."

Who knew that he was also a regular reader of Shakespeare's Henry the Sixth?

For death by lawyering might just be Gary Bettman's epitaph should he ever leave the commissioner's office. And while there is no Dick the Butcher to give life to the idea of killing all the lawyers who midwifed the complex agreement that Bettman brought forth, the fact that it appears to again be showering outrageous fortune on so many players is surely not wasted on the eyes of team owners.

After all, the document was supposed to put ink to what the owners presumed was the complete surrender and utter capitulation of the NHLPA in regard to their unseemly hold on ownership's purse. That it hasn't happened was made clear in a column by my SI.com colleague Darren Eliot, but that's only a part of the problem for ownership.

In addition to the outsized sums being spent to lock up young players for ridiculously long terms (see Mike Richards' 12-year deal with Philadelphia as Exhibit A of many), there are other chinks in what was supposed to be chain-mail-like armor for owners.

Just this week, Bettman's former right-hand man, lawyer Brian Burke, raged against the power of the competition committee, a group created via the CBA to hold sway over the game. Burke charged that giving players (the majority of the committee is made up of them) input into how the game is played is "back assward" and that even if it is allowed to continue, they should at least report to the general managers committee and not to the commissioner.

And that's just Burke's latest volley. He's also maintained that the rules regarding trades and salary transfers should be redone and that there be modification to the instigator rule as well.

Other GMs have argued for similar relief and taken up the cause on a great many other issues. Owners have quietly been raging about how the agreement has driven up their costs without allowing them to control those costs or improve their product. Fans aren't particularly happy with the agreement, either, given that virtually every team in the league has raised prices in an effort to cope with new cost ceilings and floors, a direct opposite of what Bettman led them to believe when he said he expected the new CBA would allow teams to actually reduce the price of a ticket.

Pretty much the only interested party not totally bad-mouthing the agreement is the NHLPA

Though he's barely had time to learn the phone system, here's Kelly's take on the document that is now 2½ years into play: "From a players' perspective, other than the fact they dislike the escrow immensely, it's actually worked relatively well. Putting aside the 24-percent [salary] rollback [players took to help end the lockout], it's actually worked better than the guys thought it was going to work two years ago. As long as the revenues continue to climb, our sense is that they won't really have the stomach for reopening, but again, we'll see how the revenues are doing for this season."

For an owner, that has to be the equivalent of getting a cleaver in the back from Dick (Henry the Sixth again), but Kelly isn't going so far as to say he might not revisit reopening the document when the players get a window of opportunity at the end of the 2008-09 season.

After all, in addition to the equity provision, they don't like the fact that they are being pitted against each other in the fight for their share of the 56 percent of revenues dedicated to salary. That hasn't been a real problem given that revenues have gone up since the document was first signed, but much of that rise has been on the back of the strong Canadian dollar. Real growth for the NHL was next to zero in 2006-07 as compared to 2005-06 (less than one percent, according to one source and even that was the result of an increase in ticket prices not real corporate growth).

The players also don't like the fact that should the NHL opt to expand, they get no part of the proceeds from expansion fees. Kelly said the players see that as hockey-related revenue, but it is not part of the swag they have a documented right to and that could be a huge problem down the road.

"Clearly, the NHL would like to consider going to 32 (teams) and there's a strong financial reason for them to do so," Kelly said. "We don't have that financial reason because the current CBA doesn't work in our favor as far as sharing revenue, which I have issues with.

"Even if we don't share in the revenues (from expansion), which I again have a problem with, we should at least be consulted well in advance of whether there should be expansion, and if so to what cities. . . . The way we left [it] with the NHL, it's obviously not going to be happening next year. When they're ready to make a proposal, we'll sit down and hash it out before any of it becomes public. But we haven't reached that point yet."

Kelly also likes the idea of having NHLers in the Olympics after the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, something Bettman has hinted he's against. Kelly also envisions the players back on a World Cup stage in some non-Olympic years, something that might also lead to a battle.

Smart lawyer that Kelly. Though he's spoken early and often about the players wanting to be a part of the business model (a concept that has received little more than lip service from ownership since the CBA was signed), he's also sent a clearly-worded message as to where the players stand on pieces of the financial pie.

To borrow other line from Shakespeare, it would be wise for ownership to understand that when it comes to the CBA "all that glitters is not gold " and that the failure to heed the warnings from GMs, fans and especially Kelly and the players, could well lead to another winter of discontent.

Philly for Forsberg?

If Peter Forsberg does come back to the NHL this season (and that rumor is popular again), the Philadelphia Flyers are still interested.

The Flyers traded Forsberg to Nashville at the deadline last season for prospects and draft picks, but that was because he was approaching free agent status and Philly was going nowhere at the time. Now they have playoff hopes and Forsberg, who is on record as saying he liked it in Philadelphia, is making noise about being injury-free and interested in another go-round in the NHL.

That said, there are numerous teams willing to make an offer, and for the Flyers to land Forsberg they would have to free up room under the cap. The buzz is they would move Derian Hatcher if someone would take him, but at $3.5 million per and with a reputation as a "biter" that's a tough sell.

Duck Soup

The Ducks of Anaheim had a surplus of defensemen, hence the trade that sent Shane Hnidy to Boston, but from a business point of view, it does free up some $757,000 of a salary cap hit for next season, which will give the Ducks at least a little space to either lure Teemu Selanne out of retirement or have something to put toward re-signing Corey Perry, who is due to hit the unrestricted market come July 1.

Getting Scott Niedermayer back reduced the need for Hindy. In getting right wing Brandon Bochenski, the Ducks have reserve strength if they don't get Selanne back. Bochenski can score goals if he's in shape and with the right center, but if even if he's not, he too is unrestricted at the end of the season and won't be a cap issue.

Refund, please

Glen Sather is as good as they get when it comes to talking with his tongue firmly in his cheek. That said, the former Edmonton coach/GM and current GM of the New York Rangers had a point when he said that the NHL should be not only looking at Canada as a financial success story, but maybe as a source of revenue.

"It's not like Edmonton is a small market. That's a real fallacy. The largest revenue-generating teams in this league are the Canadian teams. I think one of the things the American teams should consider is going back to those Canadian clubs and getting the money back that they subsidized them with for all those years."

Funny guy, that Slats.

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