Out Of Bounds: NHL lockout, preseason cancellation threaten league's progress

The NHL owners and the NHL Players’ Association union must fix core economic issues for the league to be successful moving forward. They need to convey stability to prospective fans to develop the league within the United States.

The collective bargaining agreement between the NHL owners and its players expired on Sept. 15, resulting in an all too well known story in professional sports: The owners locked out the players.

As recently as Sept. 27, the league canceled all preseason games. This is the league’s fourth labor strike in the past 20 years. The second most recent lockout occurred from September 2004-July 2005, resulting in the cancelation of the 88th season of the NHL.

Throughout major American professional sports leagues, league disputes have become commonplace in the past year and a half. NBA owners locked out their players’ union for 161 days in 2011, shortening the season from 82 to 66 regular season games. NFL owners locked out their players for 130 days in 2011, as well, but reached an agreement without losing any regular season games.

In the United States, the NHL is in a different class than the NFL and the NBA. The NHL has become the kid brother of the four major professional sports leagues. ESPN, the sports news source for many Americans, mentions hockey no more than a handful of times throughout the course of a day. The majority of nationally televised NHL games are shown on the NBC Sports Network, which many cable providers do not carry in their cable package.

Since the United States is home to 23 of the league’s 30 teams, it should aim to maintain stability and cater to the fans in order to cultivate interest in the league. On the contrary, the NHL allows the business side of the game to supersede what truly matters to ensure sustainability and growth in nontraditional hockey markets.

It is undeniable that there is a financial imbalance in the NHL. Though there are accounting loopholes that allow teams to appear worse off than they actually are, the league is still profoundly imbalanced between the haves and the have-nots.

According to Forbes magazine, the Toronto Maple Leafs along with the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens had a combined operating profit of $171 million in 2010-2011. The 27 other NHL teams lost a combined $44 million. Overall, 18 teams lost money.

The next collective bargaining agreement needs to make major changes to address the inequality. The fundamental issue in these negotiations has been how to divide league revenues between the players and the owners.

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said, “We are still waiting for the union to demonstrate some willingness to negotiate on an appropriate division of league-wide revenues … Until we get some sense of that, it will continue to be an impossible task to reach a new agreement.”

Players received a 57 percent share of total league revenue last year under the past collective bargaining agreement. The NHL owners’ latest proposal allotted 49 percent of league revenue to the players in the first year, falling to 47 percent by the end of the proposed deal. The union’s latest offer gives players a 54.3 percent share of league revenues in the first year and between 52 and 52.5 percent for the remaining three years of the deal.

Though these are extremely important core economic issues that need to be resolved to alleviate imbalances, losing another season would destroy any progress the league has made since the previous lockout.

Following the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement, the NHLPA agreed to play under the terms of the previous agreement for another season, but the owners voted unanimously to lock out the players once the past agreement expired.

Some NHL players have expressed a desire to end the lockout.

“Our point is to show that we’re willing to play, we want to play and we’re going to do everything we can to get ourselves playing until we reach an agreement,” Montreal Canadiens defenseman Josh Gorges said.

Losing more of the season will also affect the fans. The league’s attendance has steadily increased over the past few years, but many of these fans will leave and never come back if yet another extended labor stoppage happens.

Detroit Red Wings forward Daniel Cleary said, “I think people don’t think it can go a year. As players, we think it can. Maybe longer.”