NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is ‘not looking for a fight,’ but he knows he’d win
Amid the three-day hakuna matata that was last weekend’s NHL All-Star festivities in San Jose, Calif., Gary Bettman continued to propagate his peace-love-and- understanding attitude toward the standing work agreement between the league and its players.
“I am not looking for a fight,” said the commissioner, echoing words he first uttered a few weeks ago in reference to potential negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement.
In fact, during his annual state of the union address, Bettman twice said in a span of less than 20 minutes that he wasn’t “looking for a fight.”
OK, sounds good here. Also sounds like what’s often said in the schoolyard right before the big kid with a reputation for hell and bedlam heaves a rock into the middle of recess.
Bettman has reasonable cause to have what might be best interpreted as a stance of passive-aggressive optimism toward potential CBA talks. First and foremost because his league, much to his credit and ownership hardliners such as the Bruins’ Jeremy Jacobs, has the hardest (i.e. most defined, rigid) salary cap in the four major sports.
The existing CBA, ratified in January 2013 after yet another half-season lockout, is about as ironclad as a CBA can be, in terms of affording owners cost certainty vis-a-vis player payroll. The owners first won a hard cap in the summer of 2005, on the heels of the 2004-05 season getting torched at the bargaining table.
The Lords of the Boards reopened for business in 2005 and each club’s total payroll was capped at $39 million. A decade and a half later, that number stands at $79.5 million. Quick math: roughly a 104 percent increase over 13 seasons, or about an 8 percent boost per annum.
If your mind has been elsewhere other than the business pages the last 13-14 years, most working Joes in North America have seen, shall we say, something less than annual 8 percent pay boosts. In the sports business world, 8 percent is the tortoise still making its way to the starting line while the hares are sipping wine coolers in the postrace party tent.
So count business as secure, good and getting better for everyone, particularly the owners, at least by Bettman’s view. The next franchise, Seattle, will kick another $650 million into the coffers, and labor peace prevails, possibly as far out as September 2022, or even longer if, again, no one heaves that rock into the kickball game.
“In a cold, sober look at where we are,” said Bettman, “both the players and the owners are going to have to figure out what’s important. I think at this particular stage in our history, and with the opportunities ahead or us, I think labor peace would be a really good thing. I’ve always thought labor peace would be a really good thing, but there were certain things we had to accomplish.”
No. 1 among “certain things”: the hard cap. All other CBA factors are subordinate to that. Which doesn’t guarantee one side or the other wouldn’t look to alter the cap system, or otherwise seek gains or cutbacks in the myriad other rules and conditions covered by the CBA. But it’s clear that Bettman’s message is, basically, a hard cap is good, fellas, and if it ain’t broke why fix it?
“There is no question that the league is healthier now, dramatically,” said Bettman, who again has served as the owners’ lion tamer, in getting them to stand resolute on winning the cap. “We wouldn’t be where we are today if we didn’t have the system that corrected some of the ills of the past. We have competitive balance and the game has been able to grow — and that’s been for everybody’s benefit who’s been part of the game. I don’t mean that just financially. I also mean that competitively and aesthetically, which has been great for the fans.
“Hopefully, we are at a place where labor peace can be more important than anything else we need to accomplish. Because I think opportunities in front of us are even greater than what’s been behind us.”
That messaging is meant, first and foremost, for the NHL Players Association.
The union didn’t go after the hard cap with its last fight, leading to the most recent lockout in September 2012, and the players finally folded midseason when realizing that all other fights are the nickel-and-dime issues that aren’t worth losing millions in today’s salaries.
Frankly, that lesson of 2012 should be the players’ guide this time, if on Sept. 19 of this year they take up a vote whether to opt out of the CBA as of September 2020. Business is strong. Not perfect (see: Panthers and Coyotes), but stable and growing (see: 8 percent pay boosts), with a hard cap system that likely will keep adding steady wage growth.
Could it be that an unbundled, non-cap salary system spits out astronomical pay packages seen in the NBA (very flexible cap) and Major League Baseball (luxury tax, no cap)? Not likely, but yes, anything is possible. But the owners said in 2004 that the cap was the hill to die on, and it proved to be true. It took the players a year to die there, and then yet another lockout to contemplate and revisit their burial site.
Do the players want to go there again? Bettman says he is not looking for a fight. What he is not saying, because it shouldn’t be necessary, is that he knows he’ll win if the players want to fight. In a sport where fighting has all but disappeared from the ice, doubtful it will break out at the negotiating table.
Data increasing focus of league
The NHL unveiled its long-rumored Puck and Player Tracking system last weekend at All-Star festivities. The full rollout will come next season, in all 31 NHL rinks, the new bells and whistles a substantial upgrade over the real-time scoring system in place since the turn of the century.
“There’s no doubt that process, almost by definition, [creates] disparities in how those stats are reported,” said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, acknowledging that the current system, though effective, had its innate biases in categories such as hits, giveaways, etc. “While it has served us well for 20-plus years, it’s time for the next generation for statistical analytics, and this certainly will give us the opportunity to do that in a lot of different areas.”
“This will be accurate,” added commissioner Gary Bettman, echoing players’ union executive Mathieu Schneider, “because the chip won’t lie.”
The NHL’s data mining also fits hand in glove with the Supreme Court’s decision last spring to allow individual states to decide for themselves about pro sports betting (yet to be approved in the puritanical Bay State). If the data and the gambling programs are integrated, the statistics would no doubt prove to be the rocket fuel for a budding wagering system.
Some degree of in-arena gambling will occur at designated kiosks, but by and large most of it will be conducted by mobile phones, which also will link to all the data being pumped out in the individual arenas.
“Yes, it can integrate with that,” said Daly, confirming the potential nexus point of data and gambling. “It depends if we license it to integrate with that . . . but yes.”
In the gambling world, that would be rated a lead-pipe cinch. Hold my nachos and hand me some of those Puck and Player metrics.
Precisely what fans will see, either in the arena or on TV screens, remains an unknown. There will be lots and lots of data and they can be streamed and formatted for display on big arena message boards, or elsewhere on, say, LED boards and banners. They’ll also get beamed to handhelds and piped to the TV rights holders, cable and over-the-air partners, that carry the games. Numbers, numbers everywhere.
“I think it’s going to be totally up to the viewer,” said Daly. “An enhancement of choice is really what it’s going to end up being.”
Daly, a Dartmouth graduate, said he found some of the numbers and how they were displayed “a little too busy” for his liking during recent test runs at two games in Vegas.
“But that’s because I’m 54 years old,” he said. “I’m not 19 anymore.”
Rinne: collision ‘a freaky thing’
Nashville’s Pekka Rinne, among the coterie of goalies at the All-Star festivities, wasn’t quite sure what to make of the collision that concussed fellow Finnish goaltender Tuukka Rask of the Bruins on Jan. 19.
“When that accident happens, there’s nothing you can do,” Rinne said. “Even with Rask, I feel like it was a freaky thing . . . he got pushed.”
On the play that felled Rask, a hard-charging Filip Chytil of the Rangers cut in at full steam from the right circle. As he snapped the puck over Rask’s left shoulder, he was simultaneously hit (or “pushed” by Rinne’s eyes) by Charlie McAvoy, and then went airborne and derriere-first into the side of Rask’s head.
With rule changes in recent years, noted Rinne, 36, it has become increasingly difficult for defensemen to impede the path of forwards without being assessed penalties. The outcome: more attackers at the doorstep, with some, such as Chytil, arriving with the afterburners engaged.
“The defensemen now pretty much have to take a penalty to keep them out of there,” Rinne said. “I don’t feel like players are dirty, but the speed of the game is so fast, like I say, sometimes there is nothing you can do.”
Chara, Weber remain the standard
John Carlson, back at work on the Capitals’ blue line Sunday afternoon with the Bruins in Washington, hammered home the hardest shot (102.8 miles per hour) in last Friday’s skills competition.
The Natick-born Carlson, 29, was the only competitor to crack the 100-m.p.h. barrier, which typically has been the starting point for Bruins captain Zdeno Chara.
Big Z still holds the event’s record with the 108.8 boomer he unloaded in 2012. Montreal’s Shea Weber holds the runner-up spot, 108.5 in 2015. Ex-Bruins defenseman Al “The Planet” Iafrate won it in back-to-back years, 1993 and ’94, with rockets of 105.2 and 102.7, respectively.
By Carlson’s eye, without a radar gun to prove it, Chara and Weber, neither of whom were chosen to be in San Jose, still own the league’s top two sizzlers.
“Chara’s broken my shinpad before . . . and guys have broken bones [with their shots],” Carlson said. “So I’d say Chara and Weber, for sure . . . it’s pretty easy to know you wouldn’t mind shooting them wide of your spot when you’re out there.”
Carlson recalled that he was either in his first or second year when Chara’s shot blew apart his shinpad.
“Everything was pretty fresh to me then,” Carlson said. “It didn’t feel great. There’s no right or wrong way to block a shot. It’s kind of instinct, I guess, and you try to stand in for your team.”
The decision by the NHL and the players’ union not to stage a World Cup in the late summer of 2020 has the sides considering some sort of international series in February 2021. It would require shutting down regular-season play for 10-12 days, always the sticking point with owners when considering Olympic participation. “I wouldn’t anticipate it being a traditional World Cup,” said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, noting no firm plans have been shaped. “But it could be an international competition.” One potential variation: a three-game series, with a combined US-Canada squad facing a team comprised of the best players from the rest of the world . . . The defending Cup champion Capitals collapsed (0-5-2) prior to the All-Star break, without a win since their 4-2 dismissal of the Bruins on Jan. 10. Before that, top gun Alex Ovechkin opted to turn down his All-Star invite. The Bruins’ David Pastrnak, an All-Star first-timer, was hesitant to assess Ovechkin’s decision not to go to San Jose. “That’s how he felt,” said the 22-year-old Pastrnak. “It’s up to the individual. I don’t know, I wouldn’t see myself doing that right now, but it might different when I’m 30 years old.” . . . Mathieu Schneider, the former defenseman now aiding executive director Donald Fehr in the players’ union office, has watched his four kids “live on their devices,” in part what convinced him to buy into the new Puck and Player Tracking. “This is the future,” Schneider said, “and to have this content for second screens and screening services is an important development.” Schneider’s direct message to players: “Fellas, if we’re not doing this stuff now, we’re going to be left behind.” . . . Fun idea from faithful reader Jon McGrath: Bring in more women’s players for next year’s All-Star activities (in St. Louis) and include a co-ed game as a companion piece to the Friday night skills contest. As McGrath noted: “I think Cam Neely was the last guy to throw anything vaguely resembling a hit in an All-Star Game, so that wouldn’t be a problem.” Northeastern’s Kendall Coyne Schofield proved in San Jose that she can fly with the big boys. She grew up a Blackhawks fan. It would be great fun to see her ride on a line with Patrick Kane . . . Coyne Schofield scored an NBC analyst gig off of her All-Star showing and made her behind-the-glass debut Wednesday alongside Pierre McGuire for the Lightning-Penguins game. Before the puck was dropped, McGuire was hammered on the Internet for his awkward attempt to welcome her aboard. Loads of viewers felt he was guilty of “mansplaining,” which typically is a rocket ship to the unemployment line these days. Sounded more to me like he tried too hard to be welcoming and the overreach was easily construed as sexism. Be it one or the other, it appeared to roll off Coyne Schofield and she handled the assignment nicely, particularly for a first-timer. Here’s hoping her debut is remembered for that, and the opportunity NBC extended, rather than to what degree her linemate botched the pass . . . Let us not forget, it was the 1996 All-Star Game here in the Hub of Hockey where the NHL and Fox introduced the revolutionary bit of technology that was the blue, glowing puck. On second thought, maybe it’s for the best that we do forget.