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Tuesday, July 17, 2012
Talking Hockey: Will there be hockey in the fall?

By Tim Boughton, Paul Grant and David Walton

Hockey. Regular guys. Labor woes. Potential soul-crushing lockout. Discuss.

PAUL GRANT: The NHL and NHLPA are meeting this week, talking about the collective bargaining agreement. What's going to happen here, guys? Dave, start us off.

DAVID WALTON: Isn't it obvious? The owners are crying, "We're poor!" after $3 billion in revenue. And now they are asking players to take a pay cut, to wait longer to become free agents, to sign longer entry-level deals, do not pass go and do not collect $200. And last, but certainly not least: Would the players please, oh please, stop signing the 10-, 12- and 13-year deals that the GMs (and owners) continue to offer?

Ugh. I don't mind the owners asking for the moon with their initial offer. You'll never know the answer until you ask the question. But I think the NHLPA's answer will start with a resounding N. Or maybe the players will use colorful adjectives before actually saying the word "No."

I appreciate that the initial offer is a jumping-off point for actually negotiating. I am trying desperately not to be a pessimist, but in observing the big four professional sports leagues over the years, you can't help but be a pessimist.

Maybe Tim can cheer me up. How about it, Mr. Sunshine?

TIM BOUGHTON: It’s ironic, Dave, that you used the Monopoly phrase “do not pass go and do not collect $200” because that is exactly how I picture Gary Bettman in this case: a guy with a monocle and a top hat swimming in cash, taking time off from his real job of writing Harry Potter fan fiction to bring the most ridiculous offer imaginable to the NHL-NHLPA negotiating table with hopes of owning the planet. Heck, the first offer from the owners made the NBA’s negotiations look somewhat sane.

The only part of this offer that the players should even begin to negotiate is the revenue split. The NBA players caved in on that; the NFL players caved as well. The NHL players could meet halfway on what the owners have offered on the 46 percent. Maybe some of the owners need more money to upgrade their hairpieces.

Everything financially is the owners' fault. Let’s not forget that they shut down the league for an entire season to essentially fix what was wrong financially with the league. (OK, the rule changes have worked but they didn’t have to shut down the league to figure out how to draw a trapezoid.) In this scenario, they are the 1 percent (but let's face it, both sides are filthy rich), they have called all the shots and now they are saying, "Whoops, help, we’re broke."

The players should come back with:
1. Gary Bettman must play one shift every night opposite George Parros but only after growing comparable facial hair.
2. All disputes now are settled with the card game Slapshot; no lawyers allowed.
3. Full taco bar available in locker room after games.
4. Eighty percent revenue to players; 10 percent revenue to owners; 10 percent revenue dedicated to ”makin’ it rain.”

These might seem stupid, but so is 10 years without the right to unrestricted free agency. C’mon, now that’s stupid.

More so than the other sports, the NHL owners are leaning toward the MLS model, in which the league essentially owns all the contracts and determines the player movement. And I still can’t figure out how it makes any money.

If you asked me right now which would be more surprising, a full 2012-13 NHL season or that Paul was asked to be the keynote speaker at a Juggalo convention, I would say start drinking some Faygo, Paul.

PG: You make some interesting Insane Clown Posse references, Tim, as usual. (Not that there’s anything wrong with a taco bar.) But the reality is that the league is asking for too much, the players will come back and ask for their version of too much, and we’ll go back and forth like our Wednesday night hockey games until someone scores because Dave refuses to backcheck. In other words, this is to be expected.

Everyone knows the NHL wants a 50-50 revenue sharing split and the players don’t, especially if the league is rolling in $3.3 billion in revenues. The players want to hang on to their bigger slice of the pie -- that’s why they didn’t mess around with random lawyers as their new union head for this go. Why not hire one of the best union negotiators in sports? How about Donald Fehr? That’s how interested the players are in fighting back. Capitulation, be gone.

And because Gary Bettman wants his league to be a frozen version of the NBA, we’ll be looking at hockey starting around Christmas, at the latest, just like the NBA's dispute. You think the NHL set up the Winter Classic between two of the most powerful teams in the league -- Detroit and Toronto -- at a potentially record-setting venue only to see it canceled? Not a chance. Too much riding on it, what with NBC’s megadeal, the league’s momentum, the appeal of the game, etc. A lockout extending beyond a couple of weeks -- even though the so-called casual fans in the U.S. don’t pay attention until after Christmas -- would be asinine, given where the game is right now. The action has been fantastic, the players are better than ever and we’re coming off a run of several high-profile, key-market teams being in the finals (Chicago-Philadelphia, Boston-Vancouver, Los Angeles-New Jersey). Reason will win out.

One of the main sticking points has been Olympics participation. Dave, seeing as you pay tribute to Zeus with your goal celebrations, I thought you’d have a perspective on this.

DW: Is it wrong that I love Tim's idea of 10 percent of all revenues strictly for making it rain? I think that should be the center of all future negotiations.

Two other points:
1. What is this backchecking you referenced?
2. If wanting to celebrate scoring goals with a toga party after the game is wrong, I don't want to be right.

But in all seriousness, the players want to play for their countries in 2014. Allowing the best players to participate on an international stage allows for the kind of marketing the NHL so desperately needs. Why the commish and owners would be against this, I have no idea.

It's not like we've seen any of the players playing H-O-R-S-E for a Big Mac a la Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. The most exposure the players have had is, what ... a soap opera cameo for Jeremy Roenick and Scott Gomez? Ugh.

If that is what the NHL is going for, can't we see about getting Paul Bissonnette or Dustin Penner on with the Kardashians? Or maybe a guest appearance by Zach Parise, who makes enemies on the next "Real Housewives of New Jersey" as he leaves for Minnesota? Every episode of both of those shows, by the way, is on Tim's DVR.

So let them play in the Olympics, please! Let the spotlight find ice hockey and NHL players for a change. It's the perfect time in the sports calendar for exposure. The NFL season is over, spring training hasn't started yet and the NBA will be in the dog days of its season.

(P.S.: Hopefully, by 2014 Ryan Miller will learn to keep his five-hole closed. Especially when Sid the Kid peels out of the corner for a bad-angle shot.)

Now the important question: How do we convince Paul to send us to Russia in 2014 to cover the Olympic hockey games?

TB: The Olympics are the only way hockey ever reaches the mainstream and give everyone a chance to be a fan for a couple of weeks. It would be the worst marketing move ever to prevent the players from playing in the Olympics. The most U.S.-based and international exposure to the sport occurs during the Olympics. I don’t buy the whole “He could get injured” excuse -- the major soccer clubs allow their players to play in international competition year-round, during the season, and the financial stakes are much higher with a lot of those players.

But what Dave mentions is actually tied to the NHL’s revenue problem -- it has very little reality TV exposure that would get players' names and faces in front of a demographic that seems to be driving most of the TV schedule. We live in a world in which Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens had competing reality shows, and this is cheap exposure that doesn’t even have to make sense. (Heck, Ochocinco has managed to market himself better than the NHL as a whole.) Although most of these shows are intended to showcase the train-wreck quality of these people -- Anna Benson, for example -- it still counts as media exposure, and if Sean Avery’s life at home is entertaining enough, people probably would watch him play (although I’m not sure whether any team in the NHL would still sign him). For once I agree with Dave; the NHL has to get into some kind of reality show to bring the players to the mainstream (I can hear Dit Clapper rolling over in his grave as I type this).

PG: Hey, you guys are right. They need something like a show to document the lives of the players on and off the ice. That would be great exposure and might expose the players' naturally funny personas. Someone should come up with something like that, someone like HBO. Maybe it could extend its "24/7" franchise to the NHL. Yes, I think we've really come up with something here.

Seriously?

Until next week, keep your head up.