Despite all the doom and gloom served up Wednesday in Manhattan, following another round of dashed collective bargaining agreements talks, I’m not giving up on a 2012-13 NHL season. I may be forced to surrender my Pollyanna Platinum card because of my ever-cheery disposition, but I don’t see 30 dead rinks, not yet, even though league owners last week flashed the working help what could be best described as the late-1960s Derek Sanderson one-armed salute (if you’re too young to remember, trigger “fertile imagination’’ app here).
The players, slightly more than five weeks after the owners finally served them a real offer, finally returned Wednesday with a valid offer of their own. Why that took 36 days is anyone’s guess, but overall I think it took that long for the harsh reality to sink in among the rank-and-file: the owners are going to get what they want, and it’s getting time for everyone to bend a little and get back to stoking the furnace of a $3 billion-plus business.
All of which is what ex-Bruins winger Mark Recchi said in his comments to the Globe just over a week earlier, noting that history has proven that the players, no matter what the CBA structure, always get their money. Two lockouts have proven that 30 competing owners love, if not live, to cheat the system, forever finding ways to open wallets for the best players. Ultimately, all of that trickles down to the mediocre and even less-than-mediocre players. Everybody wins. Proof: average NHL pay now exceeds $2 million a year.
So maybe it was Recchi’s words, or maybe it was simply the angst of losing three or four hefty paychecks, but the players said they would capitulate and accept a 50/50 split in gross revenues. That was big. They have been banking 57 percent since October 2005, and last year that grossed them more than $1.65 billion in payroll. Until Wednesday, they didn’t want to sign on the dotted line unless they could preserve that level of compensation, perhaps build off it over the life of a new deal. To give up 7 percentage points was real money.
True, in acquiescing to the lower revenue percentage, the players did not also check off all the financial boxes and complex language/rights amendments that the league requested in its Oct. 16 offer. For one thing, the players wanted nearly a $400 million promise, payable over the first four years of a five-year deal, to make sure all of those with existing contracts were paid in full. Easy for owners to accept? Hardly. Especially when the owners’ offer in October earmarked just over $200 million for the “make whole’’ provision.
But I think the players’ figure was a talking point, and eventually will be middled. In itself, it was not a deal-breaker.
Truth is (at least my truth), the players’ shift to 50/50 was the time for the owners silently to claim victory and get the deal done. The NFL deal is 50/50. Ditto the NBA. And, really, that’s why the NHL wants 50/50 — to be right there with the other capped sports, share in the money-making magic of those other monopolies.
It’s an owner ego thing, and had the NHL Players Association been sharper 2-3 years ago, it likely could have settled in the 52-53 percent range on a CBA extension before the NFL and NBA got around to staging their knife fights with the players to lock in at 50/50.
The NHLPA, though, dragged its feet, switched out executive directors yet again, and now the players are left with Donald Fehr tiptoeing them ever so delicately by the graveyard three years after believing he had the big bag full of mojo that would lead them to the promised land. Yeow. And we thought Billy Buckner blew a slow roller.
The NHL owners know they’ve won now, and their reluctance to stay at the table and cut a deal last week tells us that they want more than victory. They want a humbling, a pummeling, and while that ultimately will look good on their balance sheets, it doesn’t look good to anyone else. Certainly not to the players. More critical, though, is how it looks to the paying customers (that’s you, dear reader) and corporate sponsors.
The longer this grind continues, the more fans begin to believe it’s just business, nothing more, and the more sponsors/advertisers stop believing in the NHL as a viable, honest business partner. For companies to commit millions of sponsorship dollars, it helps if the league they’re sponsoring actually plays games. In a world that goes more “virtual’’ by the hour, it’s still true that an industry based on games being played needs, well, games being played. I know, I am a sad-sack traditionalist, huh?
Let’s hope that Wednesday was merely the league’s tit-for-tat response to the NHLPA taking those five-plus weeks to come back with a viable response off the Oct. 16 offer. Perhaps the owners’s lack of alacrity is their not-so-subtle reminder that they own the business, therefore they can dictate terms, and it was the union’s responsibility to bargain hard when it was still possible to play a full 82-game season. If that is the case, then there remains the slight hope that they’re back to the table sooner rather than later and a 50- or 60-game season is saved.
I truly believe that’s the case.
It’s not easy from here. Bargaining is hard, often frustrating, dirty work, and it will get all the dirtier if the players opt for union decertification. But this is not what it was in 2004 when the players balked at a salary cap. It’s not even what it was a week ago when the players were adamant about wanting more than half the gate receipts.
It’s now up to the owners to realize that they have won plenty, dealt the union and its leadership a brutal blow to wallet and ego, and they would be smart to preserve what remains of their game’s healthy fan base, as well as their sponsorship and broadcast alliances.
Hockey fans know humility. They see it often in games, and they probably see it too often in the teams they love, given that only one of 30 teams wins each year and 29 go home hurting.
To know humility is also to know hubris, to know overreaching, to know greed and humiliation. The owners right now are intent on running up the score on the very players they’ll ultimately be asking to do everything they can to win games. Not wise. Equally unwise, and unprofitable, to alienate everyone else who supports the game.
Chiarelli likes what he sees
The Bruins haven’t been on the ice in nearly seven months, leaving general manager Peter Chiarelli with an unchanged whiteboard full of roster names in his office and a slab of ice-free concrete on the Garden floor.
“It’s got a ‘Groundhog Day’ feel to it right now,’’ said Chiarelli. “When the season is on, you’re always thinking about improving your team. You’re always looking at the depth charts of all the other teams. You’re always having conversations with other GMs — sometimes just conceptual conversations. It’s a fluid thinking process going on all the time.
“That’s what I’ve done for the last 15 years. And that’s just been petering out. You can only do all that so much. So it’s getting a little tiresome. And everyone’s in the same situation. It’s not lack of motivation. But it’s just repetition, and it’s tiresome.’’
Meanwhile, two of the organization’s top prospects have commanded Chiarelli’s attention. Potential franchise defenseman Doug Hamilton has been impressive with the Niagara IceDogs, his junior team, and goalie Niklas Svedberg bolted to an outstanding start (6-3-0, 2.17 GAA) with Providence, his first taste of North American hockey after signing with the Bruins as a free agent out of Sweden’s Brynas IF Gavle.
On Hamilton: “It has been a difficult year for him because the league is a little easy for him. It’s his fourth year in the league now. It’s time for him to move on.
“Last year we saw him put up some prolific offensive numbers. This year he still leads the league in scoring, but the numbers are not as prolific.
“I know that’s he got that propensity to his game to push the puck offensively. I’ve seen him dial that back a bit because you get a little wayward. But he has a solid, solid game. He’s been very good.
“It’s interesting to see his approach, because he is taking a more disciplined approach; he can really change the style of his game, he’s that good a player. He will have his adjustment period with his gap control, because he has a very tight gap [on the opposing puck-carrier]. And that’s outstanding, but he’ll have to adjust in the NHL — probably back off a little bit until he gets up to speed, then tighten it up again.
“I’ve talked so much about him, because there hasn’t been much else to talk about, and you don’t want to create expectations for the kid that are nearly impossible to fulfill. But, he’s a really, really good player.’’
On Svedberg: “He’s been good. He had a good year last year when his team won the championship in the Swedish League. It’s not new to him. He’s getting acclimated to the rink. He’s facing shots from a lot of different angles.
“He’s a real competitive kid. He’s got good size. He’s very quick, post-to-post. He’s the type of goalie [in style] we haven’t had in my time here. A couple of areas he has to work on; a lot of European goalies play deeper in the crease.
“But he is a competitive guy, boy, good size and good technique. You can see him getting better every weekend. He could play in an NHL game now.’’
A hammering from Hamrlik
Soon after the NHL shot down the players’ offer Wednesday, veteran Czech defenseman Roman Hamrlik chimed in on Donald Fehr from the Czech Republic, landing the first heavy blow from the rank-and-file to the executive director’s chin.
Hamrlik to TV Nova’s Roman Jedlicka, as first reported by Yahoo! Sports’s Greg Wyshynski (a.k.a. “Puck Daddy”):
“I am disgusted. We have to push Fehr to the wall to get the deal. Time is against us. We lost one-quarter season, it is $425 million. Who will give it back to us? Mr. Fehr?’’
Hamrlik, 38, already had more than 10 years in the league when he lost a year’s pay to the 2004-05 lockout under then-executive director Bob Goodenow. This is his third lockout.
“There should be voting between players,’’ said Hamrlik, who is under contract for a second year with the Capitals at $3.5 million. “Four questions — yes or no — then count it. If half of players say, ‘Let’s play!’ then they should sign the new CBA. If there is no season, he should leave and we will find someone new. Time is our enemy.’’
Not the kind of independent thinking Fehr was accustomed to hearing voiced in public during his days running the Major League Baseball Players Association.
Proof again that hockey is a different sport, with different ethos, and a vastly different ownership group. NHL players collectively lost approximately $1.2 billion in 2004-05 wages, and many millions more when existing contracts were discounted by 24 percent.
Ex-Bruins prospect Kris Versteeg, now property of the Florida Panthers, dragged the labor discussion to a new low last week on TSN radio when he depicted commissioner Gary Bettman and his top lieutenant, Bill Daly, as “cancers’’ that need to be “cut out’’ because “they’ve been polluting this game for far too long.’’ Said a team executive, “I’ll just tell you this about Versteeg. I know one NHL team he’s been on where his teammates will tell you they loathed him.’’ Reports out of Montreal also had a few NHL players participating in an informal workout, some of them wearing ballcaps that read, “Puck Gary.’’ Clearly, the dialogue is not getting better.
Looking out below
The NHL’s Central Scouting Service released its early-season rankings, and the top two North American skaters are Nathan MacKinnon, a center for Halifax in the Quebec League, and Seth Jones, a 6-foot-4-inch blue liner for Portland in the Western League. Jones, by the way, is Texas-born and the son of 6-8 Popeye Jones of NBA fame. Popeye played 11 years in the NBA, including two in Toronto, where he no doubt got the puck bug. The NHL draft is next June 28 in Newark. If MacKinnon goes off the top, he’ll be the first No. 1 selected from the Quebec League since Sidney Crosby in 2005. Other No. 1 picks from the Q: Mario Lemieux, Pierre Turgeon, and Alexandre Daigle, the latter of whom was the only bust in the bunch. One of the Quebec League’s greatest NHL stars, Mike Bossy, starred at Laval before the Islanders grabbed him with the 15th overall pick in 1977.
Seniors may suffer
Amid the labor strife, all ex-NHLers over age 65 are left to wonder whether their Senior Player Benefit payments will be halted Jan. 1 if there isn’t a new deal in place. The league and the NHLPA combined in recent years to fund the benefit in order to help the many vets, including some of the game’s greatest names, who receive only meager pensions. Could be that these guys — including such icons as Jean Beliveau, Gordie Howe, and Milt Schmidt — are told the tap has been turned off, making them collateral damage in this Gong Show. These guys missed, some by decades, the big-money era. For some, the senior benefit is essential to cover day-to-day expenses.
In keeping with standard hockey practices, no matter what the level of play, no fewer than three Providence Bruins are coping with concussions: Trent Whitfield, Maxime Sauve, and Garnet Exelby . . . And no, for the record, Marc Savard has not been scheduled in recent weeks to return to the Hub for one of his ongoing neuro-psych exams related to his postconcussion symptoms. Based on his recent tweets, he highly doubts he’ll ever play again . . . Still under contract for $3 million a year, Tim Thomas finds himself where the vast majority of NHL goalies are these days: not playing hockey. His stated intention over the summer was to take a year off, effectively terminating his days in Black and Gold and possibly ending his Hall of Fame career (two Vezinas, one Cup). But seven months off skates, and with the NHL dormant, there is that chance he could be enticed to return if the CBA ever gets settled. “We’ve had no contact with him,’’ said Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli. “Haven’t heard a word.’’ . . . At last look, Bruins center Patrice Bergeron had 9 goals and 18 points in 11 games in Switzerland (Lugano). That was the best scoring rate on the roster, but in total points, Bergeron trailed old pal Glen Metropolit (6-21—27 in 23 games). Metropolit, 38, last in the NHL with Montreal in 2009-10, played the last two seasons in Zug, Switzerland, before joining Lugano this year . . . Reports out of the Czech Republic have it that Jaro Spacek has decided to call it a career. Spacoman, represented by local agent Steve Freyer, wrapped up last season with the Hurricanes after the Habs shipped him to Raleigh in the unloading of Tomas “Tomato Can’’ Kaberle.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.