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Worthless NHL lockout produces little change

Photo from Flickr/briweldon

It was always going to end this way, with cooperation and compromise begrudgingly conquering greed and bluster. 

No one thought the process would take four months, or that the impetus for serious negotiation would stem from a place of fear, but the mechanics of the final chapter were always fairly well known and expected from the beginning: The owners would push, the NHLPA would resist as long as it could, and a deal would be reached on the owners side of the middle ground. 

The players resisted longer than most expected — hardly bending — and the owners pushed longer than most expected, hardly caring. They both bickered over projected growth and revenue while the same bickering threw into question all projected growth and revenue. And because of that Python-esque absurdity we lost four months of the NHL only to emerge from the rubble with a verbal agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement that could have been had in June or July. Easily. 

There is nothing about this new CBA that is surprising or unexpected. It looks remarkably like the previous one. There are no grand new concepts or bold new experiments — it's full of tweaks and adjustments, arrived at through a series of trade-offs and compromises. 

For that, this gate-driven league that's 'losing money' and starving to be taken seriously in the American sports pantheon burned over a billion dollars, pushed away key sponsors, ticked off its paying customers, and gave official authority to the perception that the NHL is a second-rate sports league in the eyes of every major American television network.

Remarkable. John Cleese and Eric Idle couldn't have drawn this farce up any better. 

Now we all look ahead, unaware of just how deep the damage runs. For Canadian teams it will be business as usual, no one can dispute that. But for already struggling franchises in non-traditional markets the next few seasons could be embarrassing. Or, at least, more embarrassing than they’ve already been.

One thing can be expected for certain: more of the same.

A handful of the NHLs' richest teams will continue to drive the “collective revenue” of the entire league, increasing the cap and the cap-floor year-by-year until the economics don’t make sense. Again.

The new CBA includes an increase in revenue sharing between the have and have-not franchises, but it won’t be enough of a lifeline to level the playing field permanently. The same problems remain as before: a handful of teams in the wrong places. Not high player salaries, not “back-diving” cap-circumvention deals, and not any other player-related issue that this lockout was waged over.

The same problems remain.

And they are owner problems. Owner mistakes. NHL head office mistakes. Mistakes that see profitable teams and owners throw money into the pockets of the unprofitable and then lock out the players until the players agree to help pay for it — and pay for it by addressing the other set of owner mistakes: absurd player contracts. 

Were there problems in the old CBA that this new one seems to fix? Yes. Long-term, back-diving contracts were a bit of a joke, and the players share of revenue was high. The new rules on contract limits and variance, along with a fixed 50/50 split of revenue between players and owners, should help keep those runaway problems in check. But the broken financial system remains. Perhaps it has a more effective life-support system coming out of this lockout, but there's no telling how long it can keep the leagues dying limbs from turning back to rot. 

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