A Lesson in History

One of the most recurring statements about history is “history repeats itself”. While doing some research for my Ethics class presentation on a labor dispute of my choice (guess which one I picked?) I realized that the statement could be applied to the NHL’s ongoing labor issues. History, indeed, repeats itself, with the same issues being argued over again and again every few years.

Since it was founded in 1917, the NHL has had three work stoppages, since 1992. All of the stoppages are the result of disagreement between the NHL team owners and the NHL Players Association negotiating a Collective Bargaining Agreement. By doing a little research, we can examine the issues that have presented a problem throughout the years and have now caused a fourth labor lockout six years after the last one.




The 1992 Players Strike: The first players’ strike against the NHL was called on April 1st, 1992. This was initiated by the NHLPA and it lasted one week and three days. It wasn’t a random decision – the players used the timing of the strike to their advantage. They thought that by striking so late in the season, it would force the NHL to agree to their terms, because most of the league’s money was made in the playoffs. The NHLPA wanted to negotiate a new CBA, as the previous CBA has expired prior to the season. They also wanted changes to the free agency and arbitration systems, higher playoff bonuses, pensions, and the biggest issue of the strike: trading card revenue sharing. On April 10th, the NHL and the NHLPA agreed on a 2-year deal that also covered the beginning of the current season. The new deal saw players earning a large increase in playoff bonuses, increased control over licensing of their likeness, changes to the free agency and arbitration systems, and a new expanded season to include 84 games. This time around, it seemed like the NHLPA had won, and the season resumed and returned to normal. The NHL then removed John Ziegler as President of the NHL, leading to Gil Stein being appointed temporary President.

However, Stein didn’t last long. The NHL then created a new position in 1993: Commissioner of the NHL. That position was filled by….Gary Bettman, and he still holds this position today (although some fans wish he wouldn’t). The NHLPA’s win also didn’t last long, as the deal signed in 1992 led to the 1994-95 NHL Lockout.

The 1994-95 NHL lockout came after a year of hockey was played without a CBA. It lasted three months, one week, and three days, from October 1st , 2004 through January 13th , 1995. In total, 468 games were lost due to the lockout, including the NHL All-Star Game. The big issue this time around? A salary cap: the NHL owners were for it, the NHLPA, not so much. There was also the issue of small market teams not earning enough money. The league wanted to tie-in salaries to revenue to subsidize operation of the weaker teams, but the NHLPA wanted to use revenue sharing to help. In the end, an agreement was reached that only instituted a salary cap for rookies, and that all players signing rookie contracts needed two-way contracts. The settlement also shortened the season to 82 games. The NHL started up again and played a shortened season of 48 games and regular playoff games. Interesting side notes: during the lockout, the NHLPA organized the 4-on-4 Challenge to raise money for charity in Canada, and it included some of the NHL Players that didn’t leave for Europe. Also, Wayne Gretzky formed the Ninety Nice All Stars Tour with some friends and played exhibition games in different countries.

Then came the 2004-05 NHL lockout. Again, the CBA that solved the previous lockout expired and caused what would have been the 88th season of the NHL to be cancelled. This was two firsts: it was the first time the Stanley Cup was not awarded since 1919, and the first time a North American professional sports league cancelled an entire season. The lockout lasted ten months and 6 days and began on September 16th (I don’t like this day anymore, its bad luck). The issue sounded the same, just with different wording: the NHL wanted players to accept a salary structure that linked player salaries to league revenue. This would guarantee what the league called ‘cost certainty’. Apparently, an NHL commissioned report by the United States Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Arthur Levitt stated that the NHL spent about 76% of gross revenue on player salaries, and that the NHL collectively lost about $273 million during the 2002-03 season (however, Forbes had published an article that estimated that the NHL’s losses were less than half he amounts claimed by the league). The NHL owners presented six concepts to achieve cost certainty to the NHLPA – all involving some sort of salary cap. The NHLPA rejected each one, as it had vowed never to accept any salary cap. They preferred to keep the “market” system, where players would individually negotiate contract with the teams and the teams have total control over what they want to spend. The NHLPA favored a proposal that included revenue sharing (again), a luxury tax, a one-time 5% rollback in player salaries and entry-level contract reforms. The NHL immediately rejected these proposals. Back and forth they went, but the two sides were deadlocked on the salary cap issue. On Feb. 16th, Gary Bettman officially announced the cancellation of the 2004-05 season. 388 NHL players had left America to play in European Leagues during the lockout. There were even two attempts to form alternative leagues in North America, but both lacked stable financing. Another movement began to free the Stanley Cup from the NHL, based on the sentiment that the NHL had forfeited the right to award the Cup because of the lockout. Finally, in July, the opposing groups came to an agreement and signed a six year CBA. Under this contract, the salary cap would be adjusted each year to guarantee players 54% of total NHL revenues, and it also included a salary floor. Player contracts were guaranteed, and the player’s share would increase if revenues rose to specific benchmarks, and revenue sharing would split some of the money from the ten highest-grossing teams among the bottom 15 teams. The winner, in this battle of wits, was technically the NHL, as they pushed the NHLPA to accept a salary cap.

And here we are today. Six years later and another CBA has gone and expired. The issues haven’t really changed that much, either: the NHL owners want more of the players’ salaries; the NHLPA says no and suggests more revenue sharing. Six years later, and another lockout is upon us. Players have already left for Europe, signed deals, and returned home. Preseason games are cancelled. Are we headed for another lost year of hockey? I hope not. The trends are the same, and they’ll continue to be the same unless something changes. We need a sense of urgency – because there is hockey to be found elsewhere. Maybe not on the same level as the NHL, but local college teams. The ECHL. The AHL. They are all markets that will benefit. And maybe, as soon as the NHL realizes that they’re losing money and other markets are gaining from it, then the problem will be fixed.


Sources from: www.wikipedia.org

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