With the tentative agreement in place, and on the presumption that both sides ratify it, there are some big questions that need answering, some short term, some long term.

First up, is how will players who were unsigned RFA’s under the old and expired CBA be treated under the new one. Some of those players have a significant amount of talent, and their hitting the free market and relocating could change the shape of the NHL. Michael Del Zotto and P.K. Subban are two blueliners who fit the bill, and Jaime Benn has stud written all over him up front.

Will the product that lands on the ice in three weeks or so be worth the wait? Some teams like the Minnesota Wild added a lot of new bodies on top of shuffling the roster running up to the trade deadline. With some players having played in Europe, some having played in the AHL, and others not at all, chemistry and fitness will vary far more widely than a normal early season game.

For markets that were struggling before this lockout, is it already too late? While all eyes have been on Phoenix since Atlanta went defunct, they are hardly the only team to struggle. The Blue Jackets may not be around to get their make up All Star game if they don’t get fans to return to a Nash-less team. I don’t recall as single season when both Florida teams made the playoffs. Then too there are the New York Islanders who could be playing in Brooklyn, Kansas City, Seattle or Quebec City in the next year or two. One can’t forget that the New Jersey Devils who lost Zach Parise about the same time the lost the Stanley Cup were losing their shirt before anyone was convinced they would even make the playoffs.

Are either expansion or contraction a part of the current NHL CBA? With the proximity of the three New York and New Jersey teams, and two of them in financial peril, it might be prudent to combine two of them. Other teams could face being permanently shuttered as well. More exciting though is the idea of expanding to more Canadian and northern markets like Seattle or Portland, Madison or Green Bay, or Ann Arbor. The KHL hasn’t been shy about expansion, and with the foothold they were allowed into North American minds by the lockout, expansions might be needed as a defensive measure as much as being market driven.

Having been an observer of the National Hockey League for decades I’ve come to acknowledge several truths. The first is that I adore hockey. The second is that the NHL owners don’t give a damn about individual fans. The third is that collectively they are the 30 (ish) worst billionaire businessmen on the planet. Last of the great truths is that being an NHL fan is like being in an abusive relationship; they withhold attention, make arbitrary changes to how things are done, and trample all over your livelihood, friendships and pleasure activities on the smallest whim.

The biggest issue, as Ive said all along in this lockout is an owner versus owner issue.  It is soluble. It just isn’t fixable by bludgeoning the fans and players to death. Both the big owners and small owners do have points about he revenue sharing issues in the NHL. Yes the Toronto, Montreal, Boston, and other older and traditional market teams are propping up a lot  of the league. On the other hand, without the teams in Florida,  California, Ohio, and Texas getting a national television deal in the USA would be impossible. That TV deal, and the advertising revenue that go with it are vital to the league.

Both contraction which the ill informed argue for all the time, and mass relocation are undesirable, and unworkable. Once you take those two options off the table, and factor in reducing the burden on the top revenue earning teams the answer becomes obvious: Expand.

The expansion fees could be used to help get teams like the Islanders out of their current arena mess and into a new arena that will actually generate revenue. Likewise a low interested ten or so year loan to the Devils that got them not just out of financial peril, but gave them a cushion potentially gives you two more viable teams in a major market. The Coyotes may or may not be beyond fixing, but for damn sure owning their own arena would be a giant leap forward. With a wave of expansion, properly conducted little to no money would come out of the NHL’ owners doing the best pockets, and they’d end up with well placed teams long term to help generate revenue reducing their burden eight, twelve and twenty years from now.

Where is the best place for the new teams? If we start with two waves of two teams, say Quebec City and somewhere in the Greater Toronto Area, they like Winnipeg will have four or five years of strong attendance just for showing up, regardless of how bad the teams are. Seattle is another city likely to have a firm fan base as long as it appears the owners have clue one about how to build (and market) a team. Portland Oregon also shows some potential. Then markets like; Salt Lake City which has an NBA team, but no other major sport. Milwaukee, and Indianapolis have marks in their favor, as do Saskatchewan and possibly even a second Chicago area team. Teams in places like the GTA, and Quebec city are likely to end up in the top 10/12 for revenue.

Given that the top ten teams earn roughly $1.5billion a year,  If after year four in existence those teams are earning 15% below the average off the current top ten, those 12 teams alone will be generating almost 2 billion a year, that’s almost 65% of the current leagues income. Seattle and wherever the fourth team landed might do roughly 12% below that, which is still another quarter billion. And that doesn’t even factor in higher income from teams like the Islanders getting better arenas or better arena deals.

Today NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced all of Novembers games would be wiped out, here’s why:

10:  The regular referees are all working elsewhere now and the only ones available are the ones the NFL had filling in,

9: Games aren’t going to be resumed until the last Rick Nash jersey in Columbus is sold.

8: This isn’t really a lockout, Shanahan put the season on the shelf for a phantom clipping call.

7: With Tuukka Rask injured (again) Jeremy Jacobs won’t allow the season to progress until he has another goalie.

6: Francesco Aquilini finally looked at Roberto Luongo’s contract and said not another game will be played until the dude is gone.

5: Holiday shopping will be a lot easier for Bettman and league ownership if they don’t have to show up for one game a month and be booed.

4: Novembers games were cancelled in retaliation for #ThePlayers offer to appoint Sean Avery their official full time liaison to Mr Bettman.

3: The real reason games were cancelled is NHL broadcasters still can’t tell Jordan and Eric Staal apart and are hoping one goes to pot before the season starts.

2: The owners are waiting for the roofies to kick in on the players.

1: Gary Bettman is still trying to figure out how to explain to his daughter why an industry that has experienced record growth over the last several years in a recession, has a new lucrative tv deal, has had several teams settle their ownership and arena issues, signed overseas content distribution deals, and is drafting players from places professional hockey didn’t exist twenty years ago can justify a lockout even to itself.

This lockout is a farce. There are two reasons for this. Collectively, you’d be hard pressed to find 30 worse businessmen who somehow remain mega rich is the first. The second is that for these folks the world is not enough. As a whole the league has grown its revenue hand over fist for the last seven years. Some teams are struggling now that were struggling the last time there was a lockout. Mostly these are the teams in non traditional markets who have never been run well enough to win. In the last twenty years the Owners have taken each CBA expiration as a  licence to kill the PA.

Was there cause? Yes. Last time the league was loosing money even in markets like Pittsburgh where however ignorant the fans are, they will at least show up if there is a good product on the ice. This time? Please. Just please. In a seven year stretch in which the American economy took such a nose dive that not only did the housing market die, but unemployment hit 20%+ in some major hockey markets. NHL revenues grew anyway. Record setting growth.

The ownership collective seems to have a mentality of get richer, and for everyone else; live and let die. All the businesses in the arena district are suffering because the team owners can only think of how diamonds are forever. Looking at the NHL owners I have to wonder where there Bob Kraft is in this group. Who’s the man who will stand up and say ‘we have too much to lose”, rally both sides and throw a thunderball at the people keeping games from being played?

The last lockout almost killed the league. Even teams like Boston struggled with attendance coming out of it. The faith in the ever returning fan is baseless. Fans walked away forever and it took years for new ones to arrive. Part of this was the revival of original six teams and big market teams like Boston, Chicago, and New York, another part was the emergence of stars like Shea Weber on a team that had to fight their way to relevance in market with strong football, and basketball at all levels. The owners didn’t dodge a bullet, last time, they lost a lot of money. The league died and you only live twice.

One of the other factors that has to be considered this time around that didn’t have nearly the impact seven years ago is the KHL. The league has had nearly a decade to get its feet under it. More and more Russian and European players go to or stay in that league. At the casino royale that is the negotiating table the Owners have traditionally held the “highest level of competition” card. How much longer until that is no longer true and the heart of the hockey world waves to all of us in north america from Russia with love?

At this point fan support is squarely in the players corner. Every time the owners, or Gary Bettman is mentioned all fans see and hear is the man with the golden gun weeping about poverty. Could this change? Sure it is possible, and not much less likely than skyfall, but the owners need to be smarter than that, they need to react before the lack of the game beats the living daylights out of the love of the game.

It is clear to anyone with even a casual interest in the NHL that there is a clear and marked divide in the ownership ranks. One the one hand their initial salvo at the CBA negotiations said one thing, and their growth and this summers contracts say another.

The demand for five year contracts as the maximum is laughable in light of the eight, thirteen and fourteen year contracts we’ve seen. Players can’t sign a contract that the team didn’t produce. This means their are only two explanations for the long contracts. The first is simply that the owners either have no control over their general managers or possibly that they just don’t pay attention. The second is that they acceptand endorse, even reluctantly, the long contracts.

While explanation number one would clear up much about the operation of some franchises, I sincerely hope it isn’t a widespread reality. The second needn’t be universal, just common enough to occur in many teams. Even if very, very few of the eight year or longer contracts get handed out. To my mind, contract length is as close to a non issue for the league as a whole as it gets.

While the NHLPA and NHL Owners have a large gulf between their positions, obviously, the distance between factions within ownership are just as wide, maybe wider. As the NHL is a collective corporate entity, one has to wonder why the voting structure doesn’t reflect this. The owners, and or their governor proxies are shareholders via revenue in the collective that is the league.

Perhaps a weighted system based on contribution to league revenue needs to be developed. If you set the threshold for full voting rights at not receiving any revenue sharing to keep the team profitable (vs revenue sharing of shared marketing monies) you get 1 vote. If you are below this you could either get 1/2 vote or in a more extreme profile, all the owners receiving revenue to keep them afloat could get 1 collective vote. Owners contributing more than 2/30ths of the total league revenue would get two full votes. Any team contributing more than 3/30ths would get an additional vote.

While certain markets are naturally advantageous, the bottom line is the business men who can make their business work the best should have the larges input, and in this system would, and not be shackled to the ‘thinking’ of owners who don’t get it and can’t produce a viable contribution. The way the NHL is currently doing business, the four year olds are telling Neurosurgeon Mom and Aerospace Engineer Dad how manage their 401k’s and what house to buy.

One question I haven’t seen any ask, and certainly no one has an answer for is how badly a lockout will affect not direct revenue, but the secondary information sources, and total fan engagement. The very biggest sites and sources will still be around, mostly. But will they still be in the same form? Will a missed season see experienced, knowledgeable journalists reassigned permanently to other sources?

David Pollock has covered the San Jose Sharks since they came into existence. He’s the voice of the team, even over the teams official mouthpieces. He’s nationally respected, and he knows the players, organization and league. What if he’s assigned elsewhere come January because Mercury News can’t justify someone paid a full time salary to report that league talks are going no where once a week? That’s a team that is tucked in tight with two other NHL teams in a state where hockey comes in after the other big three, and likely surfing, extreme sports, and MMA.

The Columbus Blue Jackets have retooled their team, giving them one of the most interesting defensive units in the entire NHL.  Jack Johnson, James Wisniewski, Nikita Nikitin, and the just drafted Ryan Murray are going to be involved in some exciting hockey in the future. Will the excitement be as widespread in October of 2013? Will the bloggers who have sprung up to cover the team over the last few years of futility maintain their passion over the second lockout in seven years? Two years of lockout to ten years of play is hardly something that motivates a fanbase.

Only the most casual of fans rely on the team or league sites as their primary source of news. The days of sports leagues controlling news that tightly are dead and gone. Even the major news papers and television stations don’t own the fanbases anymore. Neutral news like Yahoo, and Score, or sports specific sites like HockeyThisWeek or Hockey Independent rule the day.  Right behind them are the stand alone bloggers, those linked by advertising driven platforms like Bloguin or who have a self managed site.

Just like fantasy hockey, each blog, each Twitter account, each Facebook group, and every last Google+ profile serve the purpose of keeping fans engaged with the NHL. Regardless of who you blame for the lockout, the NHL owners, the NHLPA, or the figureheads of either, some of these secondary sources will cease to exist with a long lockout. Others will suffer a serious degradation of quality. This serves no one. Well run teams use these secondary news sources to keep fans engaged, and mainstream media on their toes.

The bottom line is that every fantasy hockey league slot not filled, every blog that stops covering the NHL, and every knowledgeable person permanently reassigned and replaced, if at all, by someone who doesn’t understand the league at the gut level is a loss that shouldn’t happen.

Dear Owners,

 

You will lose the most. Short term, long term, medium term, it can’t work any other way.  It really is that simple, the playersmight lose a year of pay if they don’t make arrangements to play in another league, for you it isn’t that simple.

Short term:  Owners will lose ticket and advertising sales. You can’t sell tickets to events that aren’t happening, you can’t replace events that should still happen. Worse, the rot of disdain has already set in.

Medium term: Very few of the owners can afford to keep their concession staffs employed and paid for their normal hours without the sales of beer, soda, food, jerseys, tshirts and the rest. This means loss of talent. Loss of talent off the ice means you will have slower, less expert, and less composed staff. Poor staff means less sales when everything finally does open. Not just because things will be slower, but because things will be misplaced, lost, not ordered, and staff synergy will be non existent. Even more than pro-sports, retail and food service staff synergy is critical to performance. There is also the impact on businesses that do business with the NHL and in the arena districts across the continent.

Long term: For prospects who are kept in the CHL, USHL or European leagues a year longer instead of playing in the AHL or NHL this season, there is a loss in development. This isn’t just a loss in development for those prospects who are ready for the jump now it is a loss for the ones behind them. The players in their draft year who should be flying to their limits will be playing behind guys who should be in the big show. The guys who should be breaking into the development league and should be earning eight to twelve minutes a night, might get stuck at a lower level, only play four to six minutes, or not at all. This means less developed players over the next three to five drafts, whichwill translate to lower quality draft picks.Essentially with a lockout, each round’s value slides, half round to a full round in worth. Poorer players means poor ratings, attendance, and concessions.

Note, none of this is about this years on ice product, relationships with players that will drive salaries up even fast than the last lockout due to increased animosity. The current and near future on ice product will recover, mostly.

Stop the Insanity,

The current labor situation is filled with reasons to reexamine what we know. Let’s start with the facts:

  1. The NHL Ownership has staked out a position that appears to be a draconian assault on the players union.
  2. Anyone paying attention for the last two or three years knows that this CBA is first, second and third a dispute between the various classes of owners.
  3. The NHLPA in the last labor dispute was to put it in precise technical terms rolled and raped.
  4. Despite the war drum beating that led to the hiring of Donald Fehr, the PA has done little to convince anyone they won’t backdown.
  5. The NHL will not survive as we know it if a season is missed.
  6. Star players who take part in the process will take a hit in public perception, regardless of outcome if the dispute drags on.

It’s now been a week since word of the owners proposal hit the media. The owners haven’t made any public move to retreat from what many consider a declaration of war. It is hard to argue that this failure to address it does not in fact amount to an endorsement of the so called leak. The players association has not taken any visible position on this. No player I’m aware of has taken a position. Given Donald Fehr’s reputation, the number of active players, and likely PA employees who were part of the last lockout, it is unlikely that even if Fehr proves entirely ineffective, that the players will agree to the proposed terms.

The owner versus owner dynamic is still the axis of this fight that is most important. Teams like Montreal, Toronto and Boston can spend at a nearly unlimited level. Not every team can and even among the deep pocked teams with abundant fans not all will. Among the 29 ownership groups there are likely four camps of various size and cohesiveness. The first will be the owners bleeding money even with revenue sharing. While likely the tightest group, those who see a fix for their woes will be pliable, it could be an arena deal that gets them out of a bad situation and into more revenue, or could simply be reduction in the amount they are forced to spend.

Group two will be the group who are in a market they haven’t managed to saturate yet and are most sensitive to the effect a lockout will have, likely this will be the group of “swing voters” who go in whatever direction they think will prevent even the threat of a work stoppage. Group three is made up of the owners who believe they can spend their way to success and don’t care who they run over. Ten minutes before the next CBA is ratified they’ll have half a dozen ways to circumvent the parts they don’t like as part of their general operations plan.

Group four is the most interesting to me. This group will be the owners who have money and intend to keep it. They aren’t interested in a lockout, but won’t allow a deal that will affect long term revenue negatively. They will be in favor of any plan that keeps revenue sharing at just barely above the point where average management of an NHL team will keep it in existence. A fly on the wall who hears owners or their representatives talking the non ticket and arena sales revenues benefiting everyone will be listening to this group.

Earlier this year, two time Vezina winner, Jennings Award winner, Conn-Smyth Winner, and Stanley Cup Champion Tim Thomas would (likely) be taking the season off.  He has one year remaining on his contract, had some personal issues to deal with and even waived his no trade clause after years of balking at doing so to give the Bruins some room to work with. He’s also a politically aware American who went through the last NHL labor dispute. Given his level of play in 2003-4 in the AHL where he put up a .941 save percentage in 43 games, and then went to Finland during the lockout with a lot of other NHL talent and put up world beating numbers, the last lockout probably cost him a great deal of money. By making it know ahead of time he was dedicating the year to family, the hockey camps he’s protecting his health, his brand image by being semi-retired, and staying out of the infighting that will likely consume another NHL season.

The owners reported first offer to the NHLPA has been covered in depth both here and elsewhere. Donald Fehr is known to be a firebrand. The possibilities for his response are nearly limitless. Depending on what level they want to respond to the ownership positions there are a bunch of things that could be included with an equal degree of feasibility. I’ll skip the logical middle ground for now and go into that later on.

Possible positions the NHLPA can respond with that are on an equal level to the owners proposals:

  • Pay at the daily breakdown rate of their salary during the playoffs.
  • Minimum NHL game and minute counts on entry level contracts for retention of the player as an RFA.
  • No entry level contract for undrafted players
  • Same pay at NHL, AHL and ECHL for entry level contracts
  • No confidence voting for NHL officials where a simple majority would mean the dismissal of said official (from linesman to announcer to commissioner)
  • Paid transportation to and from home for all players going to official team events
  • 100% pay for buyouts
  • Teams dressing less than the 18 skaters and 2 goaltenders each game would have to give each player in their system, regardless of the level they are assigned to,  a bonus equivalent to 1 days pay at the NHL level.
  • Unrestricted right to use team and league logos, names and imagery when endorsing other products.