- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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As another day goes by without bargaining talks, Thursday being the league’s deadline for a new collective bargaining agreement to save a full season, you wonder what former members of the NHL family are thinking as they watch it all unfold.
Enter Larry Quinn, former president, managing partner and minority owner of the Buffalo Sabres.
He was with the Sabres during the last lockout, which wiped out an entire season, and simply shakes his head at what he’s seeing eight years later.
"I really believe there’s a deal to be made here,” Quinn told ESPN.com this week. "And I’m shocked that given the money involved. ... I mean, the person that gets hurt the most in this is the player. You’ve got a diminishing asset, and unlike the owners, everything they make is a profit and it cannot be replaced. That’s just the nature of the beast. The fact that their limited livelihood would be jeopardized once again, something is just wrong. It makes you wonder what interests are being represented and why."
Quinn and the small-market Sabres were a big supporter last time around of the league’s efforts to secure a salary cap. The Sabres emerged from that lockout as one of the great stories early on, going to back-to-back conference finals in 2006 and 2007 while playing an entertaining brand of hockey. But when salaries again began to rise despite the cap system, Buffalo lost the likes of Danny Briere and Chris Drury to free agency.
The point being, Quinn says, salaries in the NHL have always gone in one direction.
"No matter what system there is and no matter how much fear is instilled in the players about what the future is going to be, the future is that they’re always going to make more money. Always; no matter what the system is," Quinn said. "The proof is in the pudding from the last CBA that their salaries went up 30 percent, and that CBA was supposed to be the mother of all salary reductions. I think that fear tends to rule the day in these situations, and I don’t think it’s time for fear. I think it’s time for people to take a deep breath, think about what they’re entering a negotiation for -- and that is to determine an appropriate pay for players, that’s really what they’re there to figure out."
The NHL business has grown tremendously over the past CBA, and there’s potential to grow even more, Quinn says, if the two sides can settle their labor issues shortly.
"Given the fact they’ve got $3.3 billion in revenue, I believe instead of fighting each other all the time, if there was a clear collaborative effort between players and owners once and for all, that $3.3 billion could be $5 billion. The NHL needs a culture more like the NFL and less like MLB."
But what bothers Quinn the most has nothing to do with dollars and cents.
"I think the biggest disappointment in this negotiation, now that I’m a fan, as far as I can tell there has been no energy devoted in these negotiations to figuring out how to improve the game," Quinn said. "To me, the quality of the game and how it’s played and how much entertainment it provides is the thing that makes everybody money. And it’s the only thing that makes everybody money. And the people that are given the responsibility for running this game -- both sides -- have not been able to spend enough time on it. To me, that’s the greatest tragedy of the whole thing."
The Sabres, under Quinn, always came up with new and innovative ideas at GM meetings and board of governors meetings, forcing people to think outside the box. They came up with their own model for an enlarged net when goal-scoring was an issue in the NHL.
To be fair, however, just because the NHL and NHLPA are focused on their labor battle, not everyone has forgotten about the on-ice product. Colin Campbell’s Hockey Operations crew at the league office in Toronto has not sat idly by during this lockout. In fact, you should expect a healthy conversation about the state of the game if there is a GMs meeting over the next month.
Still, Quinn’s point is that the labor/financial battle is easily the larger focus right now.
"It’s just a shame that the legal part of this has overtaken things," he said.
And so with no talks scheduled as of early Thursday afternoon, the NHL remains paralyzed in labor hell.
"You know who I feel the worst for? It’s the players," Quinn said. "I just see them getting hurt once again for no reason."
1dScott Burnside and Craig Custance