by Clark Groome

How has hockey changed since the NHL owners locked out the players for the entire 2004-2005 season?

The rules were changed to make the game faster, more offensive, and less clutch-and-grabby. Two-line passes were no longer illegal. A shootout was added so that there is always a winner.

The owners, who got everything they asked for in the 2005 collective bargaining agreement, imposed a salary cap on the teams and got the players to accept a 24 percent rollback in their salaries. That salary cap has increased every year. Several teams – the Phoenix Coyotes, the Anaheim Ducks, the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Florida Panthers and, surprisingly, the New Jersey Devils – are currently facing significant financial problems.

Since 2005 the average player’s salary has increased from $1.45 million to $2.4 million. The league’s aggregate income has risen from $2.3 billion before the lockout to $3.3 billion last season.

In the years following the work stoppage, hockey has enjoyed significantly increased fan support, both in the various arenas and on TV. A 10-year deal with NBC makes hockey central to the network’s plans to have its NBC Sports Network (née the Outdoor Life Network and later Versus) give ESPN a run for its money and its viewers.

Seven different teams have won the Stanley Cup.

The league has taken significant steps to diminish the serious head injuries that have led to suicides, premature deaths, and shortened careers.

Perhaps the most significant change has been the establishment of the Winter Classic, an outdoor game played on Jan. 1 each season that has grown in just five years into one of our premiere sporting events.

Hockey looks to be in great shape.

So why, last Saturday, at 11:59 p.m. when the collective bargaining agreement signed after the last lockout expired, did the owners slam the doors shut again?

The owners, in spite of winning the last CBA almost 100 percent, still feel the players are paid too much.

Because of the structure of the last CBA, teams were able to construct contracts that basically overcame the cap restrictions. Winking at warp speed, the league has ruled it’s all legal.

Now, to protect themselves from themselves, the owners, led by Commissioner Gary Bettman, want to negotiate a new CBA that controls the very people who lacked control under the old one.

Under the old CBA, players got 57 percent of the hockey revenue and the owners, 43 percent. In the current negotiations, the owners originally proposed an exact reversal of that, asking that the players once again have their salaries reduced by 24 percent.

The players weren’t happy. They are better organized and more unified this time around. Donald Fehr, formerly the head of Major League Baseball’s players union, is heading the NHLPA.

Having given up so much the last time, the players – while recognizing they’ll have to sacrifice something – aren’t willing to contribute all they’ve gained in the last seven years.

The union has also said that it would be willing to start the season under the old CBA while negotiations continued. The owners said basically, “No way José – it’s our way or the highway.”

Both sides have to be flexible. This time it seems that the players are the ones demonstrating the most flexibility. They have offered several rollbacks and even suggested they’d contribute to some revenue-sharing plans that would help the financially distressed franchises.

Because the owners won last time, maybe they think they’re going to win again this time. That’s not negotiation. That’s arrogance.

When asked about how this would affect the fans, Bettman said, “We recovered well the last time because we have the world’s greatest fans.” Inherent in that smugly delivered answer is the thought that regardless of how badly the fans are treated, they’ll come back.

Don’t count on it.

My son Rob is as passionate a hockey fan as anyone I know. He was four when the Flyers won their first Stanley Cup in 1974. He’s loved the sport ever since. He’s fed up and says he doubts he’ll come back if they lose a lot of the upcoming season. He blames the owners and says, “Why do we have to pay for their mistakes after all the support we’ve given their teams and their sport?”

Good questions.

The two sides need to sit down and talk about what’s best for all parties: for the fans and also for those thousands of people nationwide who are game-day employees and will be out of work when there are no games.

My guess is that neither side will countenance losing the Winter Classic, so it’s likely the season will begin sometime around Thanksgiving.

It could be sooner if people would follow the advice of my friend and colleague, Inquirer Flyers beat-writer Sam Carchidi, who wrote in his Sept. 9 hockey column, “Skip the rhetoric, agree to a 50-50 split, and start the season on time.”

Sam’s right. Are the owners and the players smart enough to do that? With Bettman leading the owners and with the players having more to protect, my guess is they’re not. What an unnecessary travesty this all is.


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