NHL·Point of View

NHL labour dispute: A player's perspective

Hockey has never been better. But here we are, once again staring right into the teeth of another ugly labour dispute. After the 2004 lockout, the fans came back and forgave the unthinkable skipped season. This time, we shouldn't be so presumptuous.
NHL Players Association executive director Donald Fehr speaks at a news conference after a meeting of the NHLPA executive board last month. (Sitthixay Ditthavong/Associated Press)

The following essay was submitted to cbc.ca Saturday morning. Its author — who wishes to remain anonymous — is a 10-year pro who has played in the NHL, the AHL and overseas. These are his thoughts on the current labour situation: 

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" — Charles Dickens

Hockey has never been better.

The skill and speed with which today’s game is played is unparalleled. Both the on-ice and off-ice product have soared to new heights, and players and ownership are making more money than they ever have collectively.

But here we are, once again staring right into the teeth of another ugly labour dispute. After the 2004 lockout, the fans came back and forgave the unthinkable skipped season. This time, we shouldn’t be so presumptuous.

The NHL’s initial offer includes a decrease in HRR from its current 57 per cent – 43 per cent in favour of players, down to 54 per cent – 46 per cent in favour of the owners. Coupled with a 22 per cent rollback in player salaries, their shot across the bow leads me to think this doesn’t look good.

We certainly can’t be foolish enough to think that this initial offer will be accepted, but really, what can players do? If owners want to stand pat, eventually players would be forced to cave, or take their chances with another league. (Not going to happen. Ever.) We are hockey players, and that’s all we really want to do. 

Players aren’t trying to gouge anyone. Really, how can they? There is nothing to be gained from a player’s perspective. At least nothing that is worth arguing over given the shape our game is in. Players were raked over the coals in the last CBA negotiation and we came out with our heads above water. The NHLPA membership as a whole, has survived and thrived under the resulting labour system. The owners had every opportunity to do the same. 

Let me pose this question: When was the last time a player held out? Not once in the last seven years has a player under contract to an NHL team held out for more money (CBC note: Nick Boynton missed five games in 2005 and Kyle Turris missed the first two months of the 2011-12 NHL season). It’s not about greedy players. Players just want to play and be compensated fairly in accordance with the money our services generate.

What else can we do? Our careers do not span very long, so why not make as much as you can while the time is right? Contracts are offered by team general managers and honoured dutifully by players. No one holds a gun to anyone’s head during negotiation. So, why now, do we find ourselves in the same boat as 2004-2005?

In the season following the last lockout, the salary cap ceiling was set at $39 million US, while the floor was $23 million. Keep in mind this is all tied directly to hockey related revenue. This past season, the cap ceiling was set at $68 million, with a floor of $52 million. THE FLOOR WAS NINE MILLION DOLLARS HIGHER THAN THE CEILING ONLY SEVEN YEARS EARLIER!! How can this happen to a game that is in such disarray?! 

Unthinkable concessions

In the negotiations of 2003-2004, players made what were initially thought to be unthinkable concessions.

A hard cap was implemented. All player salaries were rolled back 24 per cent. (Think about that for a second; you have a guaranteed contract for $500,000, and someone is going to reach into your pocket and take back $120,000?? Insanity in theory, right?). And entry-level salaries and signing bonuses were drastically reduced for the most part.

These were the major tipping points for last negotiation.

When combined with escrow that reached up to 22 per cent of player salaries, the thought was that digging in to player salaries would put at least some portion of ownership’s largest expense back into their pockets. Players only ask to be paid what is fair in relation to what is being generated.

Seven years ago we took a tough pill and swallowed it. The game came out of it better (thankfully, and luckily) and together, teams and players have grown revenues to previously unattainable levels.

But what has changed? Why is that deal now so unfair? There is no give and take. It is looking more and more like take-take-take. Owners have proposed another 22 per cent rollback on player salaries, but what does that really do??

"Take more money from players" isn’t a viable solution for a successful business model. The owners don’t want to fix what are the real issues at hand. 

My real solution (which will never happen); soft-cap/luxury tax system. Let the Leafs, Rangers, Habs, and Flyers spend at will. They can subsidize the Carolinas and Nashvilles of the world. That way, it also isn’t so uncomfortable when the owners sit down at their meetings and have to justify their 13-14yr/$100 million contract they have just offered, while crying poor out of the other sides of their mouths. 

In an article written by an anonymous NHLPA member last week on Yahoo! Sports Puck Daddy, the author quotes, "In any negotiation things tend to proceed amicably until one side offers something the other side finds completely unacceptable. Then all bets are off."

I don’t see that as being an option players can accept at this point. Players want to play and get paid. And they want to do so in the best league in the world. Trust me. Europe is not the option that it once was. The money and lifestyle are nowhere near comparable to what a high-end NHL player is used to, and for most players the pro versus con argument is heavily weighted to North America.

Can you remember what the last lockout was like?? I can. I was still on my entry-level contract and I will tell you it was horrible from a players’ perspective. I had enough of an understanding to realize that this was going to be harder on the players than it would be on the owners. I was also trying to wrestle with the fan within, craving to watch a hockey game after dinner.

Inside perspective

Greedy players and greedy owners ruining my game. But now that I’ve seen it from the inside, I’ll tell you that’s the last thing players want.

Players then were constantly waiting for the inevitable axe to drop. They were told that if they held their resolve and stuck together, all would be fine.

"Save your money, we’ll need that war chest."

"You’ll be fine with stipends".

Bullshit. One owners’ war chest is as big as ours combined. The mantra should have been; "Take your medicine and choose what’s really important".

They want HRR to go from 57 per cent to 46 per cent?! No thanks, you’ve already got parking, concessions, and who knows what else generating income that is not considered as part of HRR.

Owners aren’t stupid, they don’t continue to run businesses that bleed red ink. At a certain point, this just becomes gouging. We are supposed to be partners in this; a working relationship.

It isn’t slavery, players are well compensated and should be for the time and commitment we put in to our craft, combined with the risk that comes with playing a dangerous game. We are highly trained and highly skilled in what we do, and are only asked that we be compensated fairly considered the revenue that doing our job generates.