Now’s the time for the NHL to start labour negotiations

Apparently the world will be coming to an end in a little over a year. Now whether or not you prescribe to the Doomsday theorists who believe the world will end in 2012 because of the Mayan Calendar or some Nostradamus prophecy or by some other calculation of numbers or religious text, for the NHL it is a year of extreme importance that could actually lead to its doom.

Apparently the world will be coming to an end in a little over a year.

Now whether or not you prescribe to the Doomsday theorists who believe the world will end in 2012 because of the Mayan Calendar or some Nostradamus prophecy or by some other calculation of numbers or religious text, for the NHL it is a year of extreme importance that could actually lead to its doom.

In July of 2012 the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is set to expire. The last time the NHL let that happen they lost an entire year to a lockout as they set about to successfully break the union.

The one smart thing the league did in the lost season of 2004-05 was ‘fix’ the game. They instituted rule changes that made the game more appealing to fans, and they responded in a huge way both at the gate and in TV viewership.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the NHL expects revenues of $2.9 billion, the sixth straight year since the last lockout there has been an increase in revenue, up 38 per cent overall from $2.1 billion.

It is to the point where the league just signed a 10-year $200-million a year TV rights deal with NBC and Versus, a deal that finally resembles the major league they want to be. Their previous deal with NBC was merely a shared advertising revenue deal, similar to one the network had with the Arena Football League.

The deal still pales in comparison to ones the NFL ($2 billion a year) and NBA ($930 million) have, but for the NHL this is a giant step forward to increased stability.

Still, many critics thought in 2005 that the lockout would signal the end of hockey, especially in the southern states.

This time they won’t be so lucky. Especially in the league’s recovery.

This time there isn’t the game to fix. There are safety issues, but those don’t exactly resonate with fans as far as an entertainment factor.

The NHLPA is also as unified as it has been since Bob Goodenow’s prime with former baseball union head Donald Fehr — widely regarded as the top man in his position in sport — running the show. He will be a tough cookie to crack.

Also weighing heavily against the league is that three sports with far more popularity in the U.S. will have just gone through major disputes of their own — the NFL has currently locked out their players and the optics are turning uglier by the day; Major League Baseball’s CBA expires at the end of this season; and the situation with the NBA is as dire as it was for the NHL as they headed into their last round of negotiations.

Quite simply, the public will have no appetite for it and for a league that has been on the fringes of acceptance in many of its markets in the U.S. (which of course makes up 24 of the league’s 30 teams) this is not a good thing.

As strong as the game has come back from the lockout, there are still many uncertain futures in the NHL with teams in Phoenix, Dallas, St. Louis and Atlanta for sale, while the situation is tenuous at best in places like Columbus, Miami and Long Island.

This past CBA was seen as a major defeat for the NHLPA at first as the players accepted a salary rollback, a cap, and many other concessions. But as time has wore on the CBA has proved very lucrative for them. Players now hit unrestricted free agency earlier and the ceiling and the floor of the cap has risen from $39 million and $21.5 million to $59.4 million and $43.4 million.

It is also a reason so many teams face a dire future. The cap was supposed to help save those teams, but instead has risen faster than anyone could have predicted, and while some franchises have thrived, a number of teams have struggled with shrinking attendance numbers and mismanagement.

It is why it is important for the league to start the process of labour negotiations now. They will be nasty, they will be tough and they certainly will not go over well in the public’s eye. But if it gets to the point of yet another labour stoppage, it will be much worse.

All the progress the NHL has made in the past six years will be for naught.

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