I think it is fair to say that the ongoing labour negotiations between the NHL and the NHLPA are shaky, at best. There seems to be a wide gap between what the owners and players are willing to accept in a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. To sum:
1. The owners would prefer a system that pays players less, and for longer.
2. The players, having acquiesced on the idea of a salary cap in the last lockout, are willing to continue to operate under that same system imposed on them (IF ONLY THE OWNERS WOULD AGREE, GODDAMNIT – IT WAS THEIR IDEA IN THE FIRST PLACE!).
The owners have all the leverage in the world right now because they know that, ultimately, if these players want to make a good living playing hockey, it will be with the NHL or they can go try their luck overseas.
Is there a third way? Possibly. If some uber-wealthy entrepreneurs were interested in mixing it up in North America there could be an alternative to the NHL. The main thing that the NHL has going for it is that it is the premier league for professional hockey in the world, with an exclusive monopoly over North American soil.
The Kontinental Hockey League is trying to create an alternative to the NHL in Europe (originally expanding from the former Russian Super League to include teams from Eastern Europe, and hoping to expand into places like Scandinavia). However, while the KHL is a legitimate alternative for native players, such as Alex Radulov, for North American players it hasn’t quite had the same pull. Language and culture will always prove to be a major deterrent for a North American player to move to a place like Minsk or Omsk.
But would he want to play in Brooklyn? Or Kansas City? Or Las Vegas? Maybe. If the level of hockey was decent and the payday was sufficient.
What we’re talking about is a rogue league in a similar model to the World Hockey Association in the 1970s. At the time the NHL had (as it does now) a monopoly on the best players in North America. The league also held player rights that limited player movement, regardless of contract status. Sound familiar? In the current NHL proposal, they would prefer to move entry level contracts from three to five years, and to push back unrestricted free agency until after ten seasons (regardless of player age), and to limit player levers, such as arbitration rights.
The WHA and the NHL tussled legally over players, but at the end of the day, players were given further freedom to move, both within and between leagues. The advantage the WHA gave players was the opportunity to maximise their earnings. Bobby Hull famously said he would only go to the WHA if he was given one million dollars (2012 equivalent = all of the money, please). Boy, was he (and the NHL) shocked when the original Winnipeg Jets (of the WHA) offered him that, and then some. According to respected reference material (the Wikipedia), seventy-seven players (including Hull) made the jump to the WHA from the NHL in its first season. Apparently, money does, in fact, talk.
So why bring this up? Well, because maybe what the cabal-style NHL ownership group needs to get their collective act together is a little free market capitalistic competition. We’re talking about some cowboys setting sights on North American hockey and turning it into a wild west corral shoot-out.
Where better to look than at what is going on in world soccer (or football) and the influence that billionaire owners are having on the acquisition and distribution of the world’s best players? Teams such as Chelsea, Manchester City, and Paris Saint-Germain until very recently were actually quite awful, but after acquiring owners with very deep pockets, have seen tremendous success (with the noted exception that PSG is a work in progress).
The amount of money that those owners have spent on soccer is absolutely ludicrous. No person in their right mind would spend that amount of money with so little actual financial return. No, it is pretty obvious that someone like Roman Abramovich (Chelsea owner/Russian oligarch/International man of mystery) has poured money into his team because he likes winning things. He clearly doesn’t mind wasting money on paying severance to discarded managers (he’s “employed” seven in the past five years). Even current manager Roberto Di Matteo (who delivered Abramovich the Champions League this past season) is on the hot seat. A couple bad games and it’s off to collect his Job Seeker’s Allowance.
The point is, that North American hockey could use a few oddball owners with very deep pockets. The NHL is definitely an old boys club, with a small group of owners (the Ed Sniders, James Dolans, and Craig Leopolds) having influence over who gets into the circle and what direction they take the league. I’m not saying the NHL hasn’t had its share of oddballs (William Boots Del Baggio, anyone?), but usually its the sleazy grifter type and not the mysterious Russian Oil Baron type. Having trouble holding up a franchise in Phoenix because it is economically unviable? Why not give it to an Emirati sheik whose son happens to like hockey? Losing $50 million a year would be pocket change (and a great way to have some father-son bonding time).
But the NHL isn’t interested in involving outsiders (and certainly not “foreigners”) into the club. They’re happy to employ Swedish players, but would they be okay with the guy who owns Ikea owning a team? Doubtful.
Solution: let these billionaires loose.
Let’s say someone wants to put a hockey team in Quebec City. Let’s say his name is PK Peladeau – or something less obvious – let’s call him Pierre Karl P. Let’s say Pierre Karl P. decides during the NHL lockout he’s going to offer one-year contracts to 23 NHL players. These players might be several third and fourth line guys maximising their payday. They might also be superstars like Sidney Crosby who wouldn’t mind making $15 million this year (and that’s not an unreasonable rate).
Pierre Karl P. needs to play against some other folks. He invites his buddy Jim B. to set up a team in Hamilton. There’s a crazy Austrian who would like to put a team in the New York area (he might even call them the Red Bulls – just an idea). A big movie producer would stage a team in Las Vegas (Paul Bissonnette would be an obvious signing). There’s an empty arena in Kansas City that the owner (who unfortunately can’t participate in this due to his being an NHL owner) might lease out to a very kind Saudi prince. You get where I am going with this?
Here’s the deal: a single season World Hockey Challenge (sponsored by Etihad). Any team in North America can enter. Maybe you make it interesting and have entrance fees/buy-ins like a poker tournament. Every team puts in $50 million, let’s say. Winner takes all. No salary caps. Put as much money into a team as you’d like and then let’s see what money can buy. Maybe you get six teams in that first year (with $300 million at stake). If all goes well, do it again the following year. Same teams. Different teams. Whoever wants in.
Subsidise your costs by putting advertisements on the jerseys, if you’d like. They do it everywhere else in the world, why not in North America? Let’s not talk about the sacredness of the jersey when we talk about the Las Vegas Explosions or the CSKA Kansas City KCKAs. Those teams didn’t exist until I just typed that sentence. You never knew their jerseys before corporate logos. You’ll get used to it.
And why not hit the NHL while it is down: get a big TV rights deal. The NHL got $2 billion over ten years from NBC. Maybe this World Hockey Challenge could get a nice chunk of change by selling its rights to the new Qatari-backed sports network beIN SPORT that sees itself as a legitimate challenger to ESPN. What’s a few dollars between friends? Pierre Karl P. would figure something out, too. Don’t worry about him.
I’m not saying that this is a great longterm plan (the WHA wasn’t), but it could shake things up, provide some leverage to the players by giving them alternative employers, and bring high level hockey to markets that a franchise-based model hasn’t.
It’s ugly. It’s messy. It’s a free market proposal.