Thursday, November 29, 2012

Respect for 30% of the NHLPA risking the most

Behind the scenes look at the CBA negotiating table
I've been apathetic since draft day +1 about the prospects of there being an NHL season, having learned my lesson throughout 2004-05 that taking sides and being emotionally invested in daily CBA updates and the faux battle over hearts and minds of hockey fans just wasn't worth the jump in cortisol levels. At least not since salary disclosure and leaps in profit have slowly morphed this into a Battle Royale of millionaires with first-world problems.

While many have blamed the lockout squarely on Gary Bettman, it’s important to remember that the owners adjusted their strategy with lessons learned from 2004-05 and voted to increase the number required to override negotiations to 22 teams. The owners handed Bettman the mandate to negotiate with an 8 team override, 7 if you discount Phoenix, with hefty fines for speaking out in a way that might undermine the negotiating process. Make no mistake; the owners were the architects who created the supermajority requirement. The same owners who've passed on nearly every dime of salary increases and rink improvements to fans with ticket increases averaging 40% over the past 7 years.

From the start of the CBA talks, the generally held belief has been: If only the owners could speak freely, public infighting among the hawks and doves would eventually create a rift the NHLPA could take advantage of to force a quick settlement. That clamour for candid opinion and the ensuing hanky-waving, Southern Belle fainting spells from media and fans alike when it actually happened was, I admit, rather entertaining.

I wasn't surprised when Jimmy Devellano branded the players as “cattle”, though I would've pegged him as a moderate, nor was I surprised when Mathieu Schneider recently referred to the players as “the product”. Perhaps if Devellano had been more specific and called them Wagyū cattle, both their descriptors wouldn’t be that far apart after all.  But I digress.

It’s impossible to keep 750 players on message and once again we’re seeing the public shaming of NHLPA members who have candid opinions that strained the perception of a united front. If talking off-message is considered a sign of weakness that undermines the NHLPA position, perhaps the NHL’s solution to the problem isn't really being viewed with contempt as much as it is with a pinch of envy these days.

If there was a realistic way for the NHLPA to fine players for weakening their position, I don’t doubt they’d have implemented it as well. And honestly, I wish they did. Fines focus the frustration inward among peers, privately, and that’s not a bad thing unless you’re in need of good copy for an article to promote one side or the other but I’m not naive enough to believe if the back-biting isn't public, it’s not happening on both sides.

Will sanity prevail in time?
The public shaming of players by their brethren was sad to watch in 2004-05 but this time it’s different for me, mainly because the NHLPA membership doesn't have equal skin in the game.

Of the 686 players with contracts this season, 207 of them are risking a second year of lost career earnings and stats. That’s 30% of the signed NHLPA membership, not counting rookies who had their careers delayed until 2005-06 and couldn't earn an NHL paycheck. And for a few, two seasons of lost stats might impact their Hockey Hall of Fame aspirations down the road.

Who are those 200+ players? Combined, they were due to make $748 Million with an average salary of $3.6 Million. On a typical 23 man roster, there are 7 players risking more than the others. They are the leadership core and guiding lights for those who can only hope to stay in the show as long as they did. I don’t see them as weak or selfish, I feel sorry for them because 40% are in the last year of their contract. And no, Erik Cole and Ryan Miller aren't among the minority.

While hockey careers are getting longer, thanks mainly to more teams providing more job opportunities and salaries that allow players to train extensively off-season instead of working a second job, they’re still shorter than your average MLB career. QuantHockey was kind enough to confirm my suspicions via Twitter, with some modern day numbers for NHL players:

Looking at the period from 1979-80 to 2008-09 when there were at least 21 teams in the NHL, Goalies are now averaging 5.8 seasons (162 GP), Defencemen 6.3 (266 GP) and Forwards 6.1 (295 GP). By comparison, pro baseball players in the modern era are averaging 6.85 seasons.

For context, it’s important to note that currently, just 23% of NHL draft picks will go on to play at least 162 games. That’s an average of 1.6 players per draft class, per team these days. On that basis alone, more should be done to provide education for the 77% of draft picks who won’t make it at all or be in the league long enough to make their nut. And for the overwhelming majority of Junior age players who’ll never be drafted, damn right more should be done for them as well.

So, for the 200+ players who've beaten the odds and are risking more than the others, you’re the ones I sympathize with. I remain apathetic in the fight over which side is more to blame for the season and beyond being put at risk but for 30% of the NHLPA currently under contract, you’re neither selfish nor weak for having the most skin in the game.