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Thursday, July 15, 2004
CBA solution shouldn't be so difficult

By Terry Frei
Special to ESPN.com

See. They can do it. They can control themselves. In the limbo that is the National Hockey League two months before the World Cup ends and the lockout begins, owners and management are displaying a prudence that undercuts their own arguments.

Two months before the expiration of the much-maligned collective bargaining agreement, a market correction is in full swing.

Two months before the NHL goes away, veterans are accepting pay cuts -- qualifying offers already having been doled out with both judgment and reluctance -- and the unrestricted free-agency period has been neither inactive nor a free-spending carnival.

Debate about the merits of the Phoenix Coyotes signing Mike Ricci to a $7 million deal over two years, or the Pittsburgh Penguins getting Mark Recchi for $9 million over three years, but both deals represent significant reductions in salary. Brian Rolston got a raise to go to the Minnesota Wild (jumping to $9.4 million over three years), but it's not as if the previously thrifty Wild opened up the vault and told him to skate in. How about defenseman Bob Boughner, an NHL Players' Association vice president, taking a roughly 50 percent cut from his previous $2.3 million salary to re-sign with the Colorado Avalanche?

Plenty of big-name free agents, both restricted and unrestricted, remain out there, both because of typical foot-dragging and the CBA uncertainty. So we aren't going to pretend that the pattern automatically will hold up. But the point is, it could. If everyone is smart.

Salaries coming back to earth without the benefit of commissioner Gary Bettman's "cost certainty" is more about the intermingling of uncertainty and sudden common sense. No, a lockout isn't looming every summer, so in that regard, this is an extraordinary situation. But what it does is show that under the right conditions, and amid a set of circumstances that includes modest television contracts and evidence that free-spending doesn't guarantee success, a hard salary cap isn't necessary.

Or at least it shouldn't be.

In the past few years, as the storm clouds gathered, there have been more examples of moderate or lower-tiered payroll franchises enjoying success than there have been of teams buying their way to celebrations. Bettman's argument, at least implied, that sustained excellence requires excessive spending that affects all franchises and the overall health of the league, is understandable, but of little merit. Dollars aren't the panacea, and if ownerships haven't figured out that ridiculous bang-for-the-buck decisions are their undoing, who's to blame for that? And the point now is that throwing up hands and saying it doesn't matter who is to blame, that the system is broken and needs overhauling, is more disingenuous than ever. The reason? This summer is showing that reason -- a sensible combination of aggressiveness, balanced by pragmatism -- can work. If only the owners and front offices are willing to try it.

This is going to result in a luxury tax-based system, which has the potential to produce exactly what NHL owners want, because it will provide them the excuses and rationalizations to rein in spending and keeping the benchmarks from spiraling upwards.

The posturing, maneuvering, leaking, propagandizing, line-in-the-sand drawing and finger-crossing behind backs all are delaying the inevitable. This could get done in a matter of days, not months. Sequester everyone in an O'Hare airport hotel and declare that they can't leave until a new collective bargaining agreement is reached -- and that they can't even send out for Gino's East Pizza.

But, no, that makes too much sense.

The silly game of waiting for the deadline to create bargaining pressure, so common to all labor negotiations, continues. A lockout is certain, and the only question is how long it will last.

It shouldn't have to cost a single NHL game.

Judging from the relatively moderate contracts many veterans have accepted, the players tacitly and generally are recognizing the inevitability of a new financial order.

The NHL's new U.S. television contracts signal a concession that network revenues never will rival those of the other three major leagues. Of course, the NHL sabotaged its own leverage with the labor uncertainty -- it's hard to strike a deal to televise games when you don't even know when the next games will be -- but there was a lot more to it than that. For 40 years, from Peter Puck through the Amazing Technicolor Glowing Puck and beyond, the underlying hope was that U.S. TV rights could catch up to the pack.

We know it now.

They won't.

Ever.

And there's nothing "wrong" with that. As popular as the NHL is, and as knowledgeable as its fan base tends to be in its own markets, it just won't translate into monstrous Nielsen ratings numbers, because -- among other things -- monstrous ratings depend on the decisions of those who stay home to watch, or record or TiVo, such shows as "Survivor Bachelor NASCAR Apprentices on Mark Cuban's Temptation Island."

A largely box-office driven sport is accepting the realities. The semantic debates over what constitutes a good "hockey market" outside Canada are wasted time. American consumerism and entertainment both are bandwagons. Season-ticket bases diminish, and tickets remain cold, in cities not so much because they are "bad" hockey markets, but because fans no longer can justify the wince-inducing expenditures when teams struggle. So the NHL goal, on both sides of the table, has to be to come up with a system that still embraces some free-market principles, but keeps tickets affordable for as many as possible. Thousands of seats have been empty (and unsold) in natural markets such as Chicago and Boston because of that combination of high prices and prioritization.

The unrestricted free-agency threshold should remain at 31. Fair is getting as much as one team is willing to pay you, after you have paid your NHLPA dues for years. Restricted free agency should remain the same, but arbitration should be abandoned. You don't get what you want? Hold out.

The NHL and NHLPA should negotiate a per-team payroll figure for the first full season of the next collective bargaining agreement, with provisions for adjustment each season. It is not a salary cap, and it would include a dollar-for-dollar penalty for each team going above the amount. To be eligible to receive a share of that fund, a franchise's payroll must be at least 80 percent of that figure. As many "loopholes" have to be closed as possible. Salaries and bonuses in long-term contracts all will be tossed together, and averaged over the life of the contract. So front- or back-loading won't matter. That's a little like the NFL system, but that league's system all hinges on non-guaranteed contracts and ultimatums from management -- restructure or take a cut, buddy, or goodbye.

Yes, a luxury tax system is closer to the NHLPA's beginning bargaining point than it is to the league's, but it also is a win-win proposition -- if the owners actually get to the point where they trust themselves, and their compatriots. It's not exception-filled and loophole-laced, like the NBA's, and it could work.

The owners, in fact, this summer are showing that it could.

Terry Frei, of The Denver Post, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," and of the upcoming "Third Down and a War to Go" due out in September.