The National Hockey League and its players association reached a tentative agreement late Saturday night to end the lockout and get the players back on the ice.
The Canadian Broadcasting Company was reporting Sunday night that the league has indicated to its teams via memo that a 48-game season will open on Jan. 19.
An official announcement regarding details such as lightning-round training camps and the schedule isn’t likely until the board of governments meets to ratify the new deal, which is expected to happen on Wednesday.
It sounds as if we’ll be getting a repeat the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season, when teams played 48 games, all within their own conferences.
But while players took to Twitter and mainstream media to express their joy over a deal finally being struck, it’s worth wondering whether there will be lasting damage to the league this time around.
This was different from what happened in 2004-05, when an entire season was lost. The business model the league was operating under was unsustainable and it took the seismic impact of an entire season lost to fix what was broken.
This time around? Not so much.
This lockout was much more familiar territory in the landmine pockmarked landscape of labor relations in professional sports. After the last deal, revenues rose to record levels but the owners had outsmarted themselves, handcuffing their franchises with contracts that were of ridiculous length—the New York Islanders committed 15 years for the oft-injured Rick DiPietro, for example—that were designed to circumvent the salary cap.
Those deals were frontloaded, with the overwhelming majority of the money coming in the first several years of the contract. But for cap purposes, the average annual value could be accounted for over the entire term of the deal. That would be advantageous to teams early in the contract, when a $15 million salary might be only $5 million or $6 million for accounting purposes, but that imbalance would swing wildly the other direction in the later years of the contract.
In 2005-06, when the NHL returned, the league painted “Thank you fans” on the ice. That would be a bad idea this time. ‘Some lame apology stenciled on the playing surface isn’t going to make fans forget how stupid the last five months have been, unless it’s something along the lines of “Yeah, yeah, we’re really this dumb.”
The best thing the league could do is to give the game back to the fans, shut up about it and stay out of the way. Hockey’s fan base has shown itself to be an awfully forgiving one.
The newest deal is for 10 years, but there is an opt-out clause after eight. Some cynical fans are already marking their calendars for the next lockout in 2021 and given the history of labor relations in the NHL that might not be a bad idea.
Some of the final compromises in the deal include provisions that will limit player contracts to seven years, eight if a team re-signs its own player. The salary cap in the second year of the deal will be $64.3 million, the same as it was last season.
As far as who won or who lost? Who cares? For starters, it’s dumb to declare winners and losers before the deal plays out. I mean, the owners supposedly crushed the players the last time around, but it was that deal the players wanted to keep in place heading into the latest round of negotiations.
No everyone lost. A third lockout in 18 years was simply unnecessary, particularly one as long as this one. This dispute wasn’t about something as fundamental as the existence of a salary cap. Instead, this was the old, tired “save us from ourselves” bargaining that owners in every major sport are famous for.
Everyone lost because the NHL shield took some serious credibility hits while two stubborn sides dragged it to the brink of oblivion, often using tactics that were just ugly along the way.
Everyone lost because the people who aren’t billionaires or millionaires, but rather the people who derive all or a good portion of their very livelihood from the league, were crushed while the rich folks fought over bread crumbs.
The good news is that the NHL is coming back. The big question is how many fans will be returning with it?