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The thing is, Gary Bettman is not all wrong.
The commissioner was not wrong in hypothesizing during Wednesday’s Sports Business Journal’s 2020 Dealmakers in Sports virtual conference that changing the terms of the CBA so that the players give more money back to the owners this coming season rather than allowing escrow debt to explode would benefit the league and a substantial majority of players three, four and five years down the line.
But that is exactly what the union did not want when the players ratified the six-year CBA in early July. The union was fixated on limiting escrow and making players as whole as possible for 2020-21 while dealing with the devastating economic impact of the pandemic, even if that meant a flat cap for the foreseeable future that would hamstring teams and impede free-agent signings.
I hated the deal for that reason and wrote as much. I’d be fine with it if the players volunteer to change the CBA so that the cap could increase by a meaningful degree through the life of the agreement. I believe the more money in the system the better, even at the cost of annual mid-teens escrow.
But I am not a member of the NHLPA. Last I checked, neither was Bettman, who during his remarks so often said the NHL was not seeking to renegotiate that he might as well have repeatedly been proclaiming, “No quid pro quo.” This was the commissioner assuming the guise of the cop of any NYPD show telling the suspect that the police will do more to look after his/her best interests than his/her attorney.
The players wanted it this way. They still want it this way. They do not wish to be told by Bettman that after three Owners Lockouts and an unyielding commitment to retaining this hard cap/escrow system despite the impact of the pandemic, he and the league truly have the union’s best interests at heart. They would just as soon prefer to look after themselves.
There was no demand for renegotiation, according to the commissioner, who is all but certainly wise and experienced enough regarding all things labor law-related not to have left a paper trail of threats to cancel the season without PA assent to change the CBA.
But wasn’t it quite the coincidence that just as the league was telling the union it could sure use another $300 million for this year because of “liquidity issues” (a term the commissioner did not use during Wednesday’s virtual conference) that we all began to hear more often and with more urgency about the handful of owners that did not want to play without those concessions?
Information we’ve gathered over the last 48 hours indicates that the owners might have reason to be angry — but not at the union. Indeed, we’ve been told by two sources that club owners were largely uninformed about the spring and summer negotiations and had little or no time to examine the CBA before it was put to a vote.
Now that the owners understand the ramifications of the deal given the challenges of playing at least a largely spectator-free 2020-21, there is a group livid at the commissioner and deputy Bill Daly. We are told that Boston’s “Mr. Jacobs” is among them.
Now isn’t that a shame?
Don’t you hate when that happens?
If there are a half-dozen owners who don’t want to play, there is a simple solution to the problem. They should sell their teams. The wealth class has accrued a substantial amount of growth during the pandemic. Surely there are capitalists more than willing to invest in temporarily distressed assets. There must be a hockey Steve Cohen or two out there, wouldn’t you think?
Where is it written that NHL owners are guaranteed an annual profit? Isn’t the league’s fall-back position during lockouts that owners are the ones taking a risk. Gee, now there is some short-term risk attached to membership in the Sixth Avenue Club. Oops.
I know all this reads like one of the myriad labor columns I’ve done over the last quarter of a century and for that, I apologize. It could be 1995, could be 2004, could be 2012. No one wants to hear about this sort of a squabble at this time (if ever). But this is not two sides fighting over money in the midst of a spiking public health crisis. This is the upper crust with its hand out, implying that it will withdraw from a CBA ratified mere months earlier without concessions from labor, that’s all.
All that said, however, 2020-21 is on track to be played in some form unless COVD-19 cases spike so dramatically and public health conditions deteriorate so severely over the next couple of months that it is not safe to play. The league and PA are engaging in constant talks regarding scheduling, realignment, and roster-related issues. Bettman knows the calendar. He knows inflection points.
The league has moved off its Jan. 1 start date and is now targeting Jan. 15 for a schedule of up to 56 games. That seems ambitious, given current travel restrictions, quarantine requirements and the raging spikes across the country. Sources have told The Post that an alternate plan to start a 48-game season on Feb. 1 is the more likely option.
If the pandemic demands it, if more regions issue lockdown regulations that impact pro sports teams, the season might be played, at least partially, in centralized hub city locations rather than at home rinks. Of course, that wouldn’t be necessary if leagues procure vaccines for every player/staff person, but there is no indication pro sports leagues are being moved to the head of the line, here. But who knows?
There is an immense amount of work to be done before the puck can be dropped. At least we don’t have to worry about an impasse developing while renegotiating financial terms.
Because there is no quid pro quo. There is no renegotiation. Bettman said so. When he’s right, he’s right.