Gary Machiavelli

Jonathan Willis
November 30 2012 11:22AM

With the failure of mediation, the NHL has seemingly gone for a ‘Hail Mary’ move: asking for a direct meeting between owners and players without the presence of the leadership of either side. What should we make of this request?

First, the offer clearly favours the league over the union. There’s a temptation here to dismiss the players as jocks who don’t understand the finances of the game, but that would be unfair. What seems undeniable, however, is that in a meeting without labour lawyers the owners – older and with a long track record in business – as a group likely have a sizable advantage over the players – younger, and without the same level of success or experience in business. This is a proposal that plays to the NHL’s strengths and the union’s weaknesses.

Second, the offer is likely made with the belief that the players should accept the NHL’s point of view, minus complicating factors. It’s been clear for some time now that the league’s ownership believes that Donald Fehr is misrepresenting it’s message to players. That seems unlikely, given that player representatives have been deeply involved in the meetings, but that’s the belief. Further, Gary Bettman inspires deep antipathy among players – the NHL likely further believes that the same message from a less distrusted spokesman will carry more weight.

This is not a negotiating strategy – really it’s an end-run around Fehr and a move that has the bonus of shifting the message from Bettman to more trusted spokespeople.

Third, if the NHLPA accepts there is at least some possibility that this helps move negotiations. A number of things might come out of such a meeting. The players, some of whom clearly believe there are internal divisions among ownership, may be influenced if a group of owners comes out and says the same things in a private meeting that Bettman’s been saying publicly. On the other hand, the owners may come to the realization that the chief negotiators among the players share Fehr’s point of view.

The bottom line is that this is a risky move for either side, but a move where the split of risk and reward clearly favours the NHL. It’s also a move that helps the NHL almost regardless of the outcome. That’s why they proposed it. If Fehr shot it down immediately, that would play to their message that he’s misleading the players. If the executive board and negotiating committee of the NHLPA opted to accept the meeting, the league could rightly place more confidence in its owners than the players could in their delegates. Finally, if the NHLPA does the most sensible thing and votes down the concept, the league simply gets to look like they’re trying to be creative while the players’ association is being intransigent. Representatives can also darkly hint that only Fehr’s influence swayed the vote, playing into the league’s whisper campaign against the NHLPA executive director.

Superficially, the NHL offer looks like an act of desperation, a creative attempt to solve the impasse in negotiations. In reality, it’s a carefully considered, almost Machiavellian move where the vast majority of outcomes favour the league, regardless of how the union handles it. It was a nice play by Gary Bettman.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#51 Captain Obvious
November 30 2012, 04:29PM
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@LoDog

Obviously we can't know for sure until it happens but I don't see why most players would be worse off.

So long as hockey generates revenues and so long as revenues are tied to winning, hockey talent will be in demand. Third line players contribute to winning hockey teams and will still get paid. If it is rational to pay a third line player good money under a salary cap it will remain rational to do so without one.

The only contrary possibility is to suggest that the CBA creates an artificial scarcity of talent. I'm skeptical.

Finally, in a true wild west format as in European soccer, you'd see an increase in pro teams which would result in more jobs.

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#52 Stuck in Calgary
November 30 2012, 04:32PM
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Captain Obvious wrote:

Decertification wouldn't cause any teams to fold. If anything it would help their bottom line because it would allow struggling teams to lower their payroll costs because they would no longer be compelled to spend to the salary floor.

I'm not saying the players should be paid more in the absolute. I'm saying the salary cap system as the owners conceive of it serves neither their interests nor the interests of small market teams. It forces them to act irrationally and take on bad contracts when these are precisely the teams that should be incentivized to find inefficiencies.

If hockey adopted a soft cap/luxury tax system, with sensible arbitration rules, with increased revenue sharing, and contractual restrictions that restrained salaries for young player as it does in baseball % revenue would stabilize between 50 and 55%, and almost all teams would be profitable.

The system in baseball works for everybody. Unless hockey finds a win-win system that works for everybody this is never going to end.

Sorry Capt. Obvious, but the minute you use MLB as the standard of what is best for the league and teams, you've officially lost me. I thought your arguments were pretty well stated until this point. MLB is a joke of a league where those teams with huge payrolls generally win year after year (or at least make the post season). Don't you remember the flood of talent that left Edmonton year after year because we couldn't afford to keep them? How frustrating was it to see non hockey markets like Dallas and others with deep pockets pillage the lesser lights like Edmonton year after year? How does this benefit the league? How does this benefit the sport? Baseball is a joke.

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#53 book¡e
November 30 2012, 04:40PM
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Bigdawg wrote:

I am an idiot when it comes to this CBA crap.... But, cant they just work off the old CBA and just tweek it??

Yes, and they kind of are, but the NHL wants more substantial changes than tweaking - the NHLPA would gladly play with the old contract and even take a 3-4% cut to do so.

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#54 Captain Obvious
November 30 2012, 04:43PM
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@Stuck in Calgary

I know people believe that MLB has terrible competitive balance but I checked and its actually pretty good. The big difference is the number of teams that make the playoffs. If 16 players made the playoffs in baseball as they do in hockey then since 2005 every team would have made the playoffs multiple times except for the Pirates and Royals, teams famous for poor management and player development.

Sure the Yankees have an advantage but every team (except for the Pirates and Royals) competes.

As for the Oilers losing all their players, I presume you are thinking of guys like Doug Weight. He played for the Oilers from the age of 22 to 30 which were far and away the best seasons of his career. The Oilers didn't lose Doug Weight the star because Doug Weight the star no longer existed by the time they lost him. Keeping a young player through the best years of his career at a discount is a good thing.

Conversely there is little chance that Hall, Eberle, Hopkins, and Yakupov all play for the Oilers until they are 30. The CBA makes it impossible.

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#55 dman09
November 30 2012, 04:53PM
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@Stuck in Calgary

Ya its really hard to compare the 50/50 split in the MLB because their revenue is a lot more than the NHL. Not to mention just the LA Dodgers est. television revenue for 2015 is expected to exceed 1.5 billion. Ya I'm pretty sure its easy to pay a player 20 million a season with TV revenue like that.

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#56 David S
November 30 2012, 05:01PM
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Bill wrote:

Whatever.....the league and the PA can both kiss my ass.

BOOM!

Bill wins!

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#57 Stuck in Calgary
November 30 2012, 05:08PM
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Captain Obvious wrote:

I know people believe that MLB has terrible competitive balance but I checked and its actually pretty good. The big difference is the number of teams that make the playoffs. If 16 players made the playoffs in baseball as they do in hockey then since 2005 every team would have made the playoffs multiple times except for the Pirates and Royals, teams famous for poor management and player development.

Sure the Yankees have an advantage but every team (except for the Pirates and Royals) competes.

As for the Oilers losing all their players, I presume you are thinking of guys like Doug Weight. He played for the Oilers from the age of 22 to 30 which were far and away the best seasons of his career. The Oilers didn't lose Doug Weight the star because Doug Weight the star no longer existed by the time they lost him. Keeping a young player through the best years of his career at a discount is a good thing.

Conversely there is little chance that Hall, Eberle, Hopkins, and Yakupov all play for the Oilers until they are 30. The CBA makes it impossible.

Interesting. Unfortunately for MLB, they don't have 16 teams making the playoffs, so the comparison is still valid. The Yankees drive me crazy, along with the BoSox, the Braves, Phillies and every other team that spends vastly more than Oakland, Seattle and until recently the Blue Jays. Generally, those with the money, win. In the NHL, it will go back to what it was prior to 2005. Even messed up teams like the Rangers who spent $80 million/season and didn't make the playoffs still stole (through free agency or lopsided trades) star players from other teams, putting those teams, like the Oilers at a severe competitive disadvantage. Let's face it, as cool as it was to see the upstart Oilers beat Dallas and Colorado, their chances of winning the Cup was next to none. I don't particularly like the idea of creating a "league" with two to three tiers in it. If that's the case, I love the idea of combining all three leagues (NHL, AHL and ECHL) into one mega league with 3 tiers. I don't like this idea that there are teams every year, year after year, that have NO chance of winning. That isn't a league to me, that's a feeder system for the heavy weights.

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#59 boxman
November 30 2012, 05:45PM
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After listening carefully and trying my best to be objective the best this 60 year old can come up with is....Whatever.....the league and the PA can both kiss my ass.

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#60 boxman
November 30 2012, 05:48PM
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Quick edit Whatever.....the league and the PA can both kiss my yellow hairy ass.

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#61 book¡e
November 30 2012, 06:00PM
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boxman wrote:

Quick edit Whatever.....the league and the PA can both kiss my yellow hairy ass.

Bill? Is that you?

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#62 Oiler Al
November 30 2012, 06:20PM
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If I was to be part of the Player, contingent meeting with the owners, I would suggest that yes we will make some concessions her, but in return the NHL has to fire Bettman from his postion. That would be one way of getting rid of him. Really this is just another " filibuster" by Bettman in this prolonged lunacy!

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#63 vetinari
November 30 2012, 06:36PM
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On the issue of the PA de-certifying... couldn't this back fire for their membership? Under most provincial and state labour laws, you typically have to give an employee notice, (or pay in lieu of notice, i.e. severance), to terminate them. Couldn't a team like Edmonton potentially clear contracts like Horcoff's, Khabibulin's and others off the books by serving them termination notices and paying them a little severance money? Or does the fact that they are under contract change this?

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#64 DSF
November 30 2012, 07:05PM
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vetinari wrote:

On the issue of the PA de-certifying... couldn't this back fire for their membership? Under most provincial and state labour laws, you typically have to give an employee notice, (or pay in lieu of notice, i.e. severance), to terminate them. Couldn't a team like Edmonton potentially clear contracts like Horcoff's, Khabibulin's and others off the books by serving them termination notices and paying them a little severance money? Or does the fact that they are under contract change this?

Their contracts are guaranteed.

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#65 boxman
November 30 2012, 08:02PM
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Bill, it is indeed.

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#66 hunkybill
November 30 2012, 08:22PM
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Just get it done

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#67 TigerUnderGlass
November 30 2012, 09:37PM
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Captain Obvious wrote:

Are you following the 67sound/Mckenzie twitter conversation on this? While it certainly isn't instant, and there is never certainty in court cases, the legal opinion appears to be clearly on the players side.

If you've been following along the past few weeks, and I'll assume you have, the reasons are pretty obvious. Entry drafts, salary caps, all of these are clear examples of anti-competitive behaviour. So, the NHL can only win by arguing for an exemption to the normal rules governing labour relations. Such an argument would probably be bases upon economic stability/necessity of the league, however that kind of claim is easily falsifiable.

This is not accurate. The NHL has a shorter simpler argument to make, namely that decertification is a sham.

This argument is aided by the fact that players cannot seem to shut up about how they want to decertify to gain leverage. (ie. a sham)

The opinion of one lawyer (even a sharp one like 67sound) does not qualify as "the legal opinion". My opinion is that this is a very risky move, and not at all sure to work out, unless they really are just using it for leverage, but then it's a sham - see the dilemma?

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#68 FastOil
November 30 2012, 10:13PM
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Hostess says it all to me.

One thing to keep in mind is that people responsible for running and paying the bills for large ventures have to be looking far into the future.

Given that the American economy is in a new phase, never seen before given intractable issues with international competition, poor prospects for GDP growth and gov't debt, I imagine the American owners may be worried about their customer's ability and interest in paying to attend in the future. Which means full North American expansion and a healthy NA TV deal are questionable.

Decertification opens things up, but anyone who thinks they know where that will go is fooling themselves. The players would be well advised to lock in - a free market may not benefit anyone long term but the truly and functionally elite players. Most would lose out, probably to a very great extent compared to now.

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#69 Captain Obvious
November 30 2012, 10:28PM
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@TigerUnderGlass

Except the sham argument is so very flimsy. It could be used to preserve the lockout through this season, however if the players decertify and remain decertified, and no negotiations are happening, the sham argument becomes impossible because there will be no negotiations for them to leverage.

And it isn't only 67sound who thinks they should decertify. I've been looking around and the only people I can find who think it is a bad idea are media guys. The rest are split between those who think it is a good idea and the player's only option and those who think it is a risky idea and still the player's only option.

Myself, I don't see what they have to lose. Half their paychecks are already gone. That's a sunk cost. So now they are risking the other half in an attempt to reshape the landscape in their favour forever. That seems like a good risk to take especially since the alternative is to be locked out at the end of every CBA from here to eternity.

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#70 Hair bag
December 01 2012, 01:00AM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

I have yet to see a reasonable projection indicating that 5-to-6 teams would go under in a post-CBA world.

Partially that's because nobody knows what post-CBA world will look like. The loss of 5-6 teams seems exceedingly unlikely, however - there likely on't be a salary floor or a league minimum wage.

What do you think is going to happen when there is no salary floor or guaranteed contracts and teams like Florida can't put a solid product on the ice because their salary payout is $25million while the top teams are spending $80-100million - do you think the lukewarm fans are going to come out to watch a losing product...give your head a shake! The same goes for Dallas, Carolina, Phoenix and a host of others where hockey is a second tier sport.

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#71 TigerUnderGlass
December 01 2012, 01:29AM
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@Captain Obvious

I didn't say it was a bad idea. I said it's risky, and it's a long long ways from being clearly on their side.

The sham argument is neither flimsy, nor really an argument. The players are the ones who have to prove it's not a sham, after telling everyone who would listen that it's a sham.

The passage of time only means that their attempt to leverage decertification into a favorable deal failed, it doesn't mean that their intent in doing so changed over time.

Do the players have an argument? They do, and they could definitely pull it off, but anyone who thinks this is better than 50/50 is engaging in some wishful thinking. I don't really see how the truth should be called "flimsy" here.

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#72 TigerUnderGlass
December 01 2012, 01:47AM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

I have yet to see a reasonable projection indicating that 5-to-6 teams would go under in a post-CBA world.

Partially that's because nobody knows what post-CBA world will look like. The loss of 5-6 teams seems exceedingly unlikely, however - there likely on't be a salary floor or a league minimum wage.

I'm more towards your side of the fence here, but the one concern I might have is that the NHL does not have the fan base in weaker markets that the bigger sports have.

The Utah Jazz can put out a cheaper team year after year because they have enough basketball fans to support a team they know will only contend every so often.

They have fans that love the sport and accept the fact that their team will never be one of the perennial contenders. They watch and hope that once a decade or so they pull of something special before their talent leaves for brighter lights.

I have some concern that no such base exists for hockey in a number of markets. If a similar situation arises I'm not as convinced that certain franchises can bear the potential loss of fans in their markets, simply due to fielding a less expensive roster.

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#73 KleptoKlown
December 01 2012, 02:31AM
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No matter when/if/how this lockout is resolved, I hope the fans speak the loudest with there dollars.

I hope revenue is down, I hope ratings are down, and I hope attendance is down. Most importantly, I hope the fans scream "We will not accept this bullsh!t anymore!"

If you truly love the sport of hockey, you will boycott the NHL for this season and maybe even next season.

We the fans need to speak in the only language the owners AND the players understand. MONEY.

Don't watch on TV, Don't buy tickets, Don't buy merchandise. Only then will these stubborn and greedy rich pricks understand that we the fans, we the meal tickets are not to be taken for granted!

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#76 jadeddog
December 01 2012, 10:36AM
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wiseguy wrote:

If decertification occurs, the NHL should investigate a restructuring where each team is sold to a corporate entity. Each owner would own a proportionate share of the corporation based on either previous revenues or appraised values of his team. The single entity that owns all teams can then legally dictate all rules, salary caps, individual contract maximums and length of term, etc. without a CBA. There is no collusion because it is all the internal workings of one company. The very profitable teams would have difficulty agreeing to this as it would be the ultimate revenue sharing, but if you can set a cap of $30 million per team with no guaranteed contracts, the profits that can be shared would be monstrous.

Yeah, I've thought about this idea as well. You'd essentially be franchising out the NHL teams, and then the NHL can make all the structural rules, but the teams are still independent as far as how they spend their money.

The only problem would be convincing the richer teams to go for this. If the NHLPA decertifies though, I could see some teams breaking off from the NHL and trying to create their own league, and the remaining teams going to a model like this. For in reality, who freaking knows really. It's a very, very, very dangerous gamble for the players to make.

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#77 tileguy
December 01 2012, 11:03AM
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What 3 arena ready markets are those?

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#78 Fred
December 01 2012, 12:49PM
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Surely any contract signed between the player and a team has as it's central theme the CBA. If there is no longer a CBA then how can the contract hold water. The CBA is agreed to by the NHL & the NHLPA again if there is no longer an NHLPA who can enforce the contract ?? Some players may just walk away or retire and some team might do the same. Phx for example. If the PA decertifies it will be in court for a long long time

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#79 Craiger04
December 02 2012, 07:48PM
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All this debate about decertifying is hogwash, I am a die hard fan and am sad to say but lets cancel the season and if both sides don't want to negotiate after losing this season then cancel next season. Maybe its time for the egos of the players to realize that life goes on without the NHL and go see who else will pay you millions of dollars to play hockey... have fun in Russia or Europe. Hockey is all business and it hurts the fans who would just like to cheer on their teams to victory.

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