Despite many claims to indifference, some of us still care about the National Hockey League and the proceedings leading up the eventual new collective bargaining agreement. There are many complicated issues at play and a lot of misinformation out there, which has led to side-taking and misunderstandings.
The first thing to understand is that the owners are businessmen. As pointed out by The Globe and Mail’s Eric Duhatschek, “anyone with the wherewithal to own an NHL team has encountered some business success along the way – which is why they indulge in sports ownership in the first place.”
Owners are not suffering individuals with no business acumen and nothing to fall back on. Most of those who step forward to own an NHL team do so because they are fans of the game. This “fun” is evidenced in the nearly $1 billion in new salaries dished out over the summer alone, a cash influx that doesn’t seem reflective of a suffering group of those struggling to make ends meet.
History also tells us that the owners will circumvent whatever it takes to build the team they want, even when it’s not in their best long-term interest. A hard salary cap was won over the last lockout in 2004-2005 and the economics of the game were seemingly strong, but now we’re to believe that there’s trouble in the henhouse again.
At the core of this issue lies the fact that many owners simply can’t control their spending habits. Period. Players may well misunderstand some of the economics of the game, but the fact remains that at least some of the teams would sink into nothingness if left to the basics of the free market their owners claim to espouse. But in Gary Bettman’s NHL, the market builds its own rules – especially in Phoenix.
In each of the last two rounds of negotiations with the NHLPA (and the last lockouts), the owners got what they wanted. This time around, they’ll get what they want again. Does that mean that the problems will be solved? Not at all. If you believe that, I have a hockey franchise I’d like to sell you.
Consider Craig Leipold, current owner of the Minnesota Wild. He is the founder of Ameritel and was the former owner of the Nashville Predators, a franchise he says he lost $70 million over. Leipold initially wanted to own a basketball team because he knew the game, but he saw more opportunities in hockey and snapped up the Preds. Now he owns the Wild, another “departure from conventional wisdom.”
Almost every owner of an NHL franchise has a similar M.O., from success in the business world to a dip in the “hobby farm” that is professional hockey. Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment is co-owned by Rogers Communications and Bell Canada, two of the country’s top telecommunications giants. Mike Illitch, owner of the Detroit Red Wings, also owns Little Caesars Pizza and the Detroit Tigers.
And so on.
No matter what language is written into the new CBA and no matter what deals are made on the economic front, little will change within the culture of NHL owners. Over-spending is par for the course, even in the professional sports league with the lowest average contracts, and safeguards like those proposed by the NHLPA in previous negotiations will be ignored. In other words, get used to lockouts. You’re going to see a lot of them.