NHL, NHLPA so close, yet so far

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The Hockey News

The Hockey News

I was a big-time pessimist from the beginning of this labor dispute, but I’ve (foolishly?) come over to the optimists’ side in recent weeks. I’m still here, too.

Here are some of the CBA related things that have run through my mind of late:

• It’s so utterly embarrassing to be a fan of the NHL right now. What are the two sides even fighting over anymore? A small difference in the length of a new CBA agreement and what the limit on contract lengths should be? Transition buyout rules and yearly salary variances? The biggest issues at the start of this negotiation – the 50-50 split, capping contract lengths – have been settled for the most part and now it seems to be about who can pee farthest into the snow.

How shameful is the league? Even though a deal seems so close, to the point where the differences that remain would be completely foolish to lose another entire season over, pessimism still rules the day because the NHL’s track record is marred with bone-headedness (lack of a player partnership; negotiating tactics; third lockout, etc.). You can’t get much more damning than that.

• As much as the NHL is jerking around the players of late, we’ll eventually come to a point where it just won’t be worth it for the players to lose an entire year’s salary. Not for the bit players who make up the majority of the NHLPA, anyway. And that point should be near.

Most members of the union will never sign pacts that are five years in length, so it’s hard to imagine why that would be a major hurdle. How is it worthwhile for these players to lose a year to protect a small minority of players who will sign lucrative deals?

• Considering where we are in these negotiations and what had been put on the table by the NHL, the players will still have it pretty good compared to other major sports leagues. Be thankful guaranteed contracts aren’t the hill the owners will die on.

• This all said, players have to stand their ground to protect themselves from being trampled this time and then asked for further concessions the next time the CBA expires. If the NHL continues to operate with these tactics each time a new deal needs to be negotiated, the NHLPA will eventually have to go all-in and nuke a season (or seasons) to do what is right for them and, really, the league.

But that time is not now. All along, the players knew 50-50 was inevitable and that some kind of contract cap was on the way. They had to play the NHL’s stubborn, hawkish game to get the best deal and will likely continue to do so until the last minute. But with how far the two sides have come on the biggest issues - and assuming the NHL’s last offer would be put back on the table - it’s just not worth it for the players to lose the rest of the year’s paychecks over and enter complete uncertainty.

The players managed to keep the same contracting rules as far as free agent eligibility and their contracts remain guaranteed (they can’t just be cut like NFL players). They’ve shown the NHL that they will stand firm against blatant bullying and not be forced into a really bad deal; they’ve caused a stir and a bit of fear. The players will still make out like gangbusters under a new agreement, because they always do. The NHLPA’s statement has been made in this messy dispute.

The NHL didn’t write its own CBA correctly last time and this negotiation was about tightening up that system. You can’t argue against that desire. The NHL is, after all, a business, despite how fundamentally flawed the league’s economic and competitive goals are. There are luxuries that come with being a part of the NHL, but one must also accept that its most powerful bosses are stubborn, cold and content to sit low on North America’s sporting totem poll. Welcome to the NHL.

It’s expected the union will file its own lawsuit as a counter to the NHL’s and that, hopefully, it inspires an end to this dispute. It should end.

What’s left to bicker about really isn’t worth losing another year over. Just don’t bet on it.

Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com's web editor. His column appears regularly only on THN.com.

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