Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Is this the day?

For those who refuse to believe that the NHL has finally ended their lockout until they actually end their lockout, today could be the day to believe.

Numerous sources, including Canadian sports network TSN and ESPN The Magazine hockey guru E.J. Hradek, are reporting that a new collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and its players could be announced as early as lunchtime today.

The deal, for those of you that have avoided recent lockout news, includes a hard salary cap, with a ceiling just under $40 million and a minimum payroll in the $20-25 million range. Player salaries will not exceed 54 percent of league revenues, so the players would benefit if league salaries increased.

This is, of course, good news for NHL fans, who were left dismayed and disgusted when the season was cancelled by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman last winter. At the time, Bettman had warned the union that the deal they turned down was a better deal than any deal they were going to get in subsequent negotiations. It turns out Bettman wasn't kidding. This deal is remarkably worse for the players than what was offered before the cancellation, and it shows that Bettman and the owners were able to maintain a hard-line negotiating stance once the season was called off.

It is not yet clear when this agreement will be announced. What has been reported is that Bettman and the league are planning to announce rules changes and a league marketing campaign around the time of the formal CBA announcement. The league needs to re-connect with its loyal fans while also finding a way to generate interest among people who either like the sport and don't watch the NHL, or might not have ever given the sport a chance.

Reported rules changes range from relatively simple moves such as adopting no-touch icing, tag-up offsides, and the removal of the center-ice red line for purposes of allowing the two-line pass, to more drastic measures like much smaller goalie pads, only allowing goalies to play the puck in designated areas or risk a two-minute penalty, and preventing teams that ice the puck from making a line change during the subsequent stoppage in play.

Some players have spoken out against the deal, but many of them seem to have accepted that they are better off taking this deal and getting back on the ice than they are trying to fight for a better deal while risking the loss of more games. Other players have ripped union leadership for allowing Bettman to cancel the season, only to see the players get a much worse deal than the one they left on the table in February.

For the league, this has been a complete fiasco. An entire season was lost, marking the first time in North American sports history that a pro sports season had been called off due to a labor dispute. To make the PR even worse for the league, the NBA reached agreement on a new CBA days before there was any real threat of a lockout.

Assuming that today is the day (and it looks like it is), it isn't just the day that the NHL announces an end to what is now a 301-day lockout. It's also the day the NHL begins the long road to recovery, as they try to bring their fans back. It will be very interesting to see how the league goes about revitalizing hockey fans.

NOTE: Since this was posted, the league and union have announced an agreement in principle on a new CBA. The deal will be voted on by the NHL owners next Thursday, July 21, and by the players next Tuesday, July 19. We'll have more details on the actual deal once it becomes available, but it is safe to say that the players were taken to the cleaners.

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