Whicker: NHL kicks off negotiations with low blow
Either Gary Bettman really doesn't want to see hockey in 2012-13, or he is running for governor of Wisconsin.
Scott Walker would be proud of the NHL commissioner's first proposal to the players, less than two months before training camp.
Actually it was not a real proposal. It was a home invasion.
The system that now guarantees the players 57 percent of the NHL's revenue would give them 46 percent.
The system that allows a player to become an unrestricted free agent after seven years of play, or by the time he turns 27, will now force him to play 10 seasons.
No contracts would last more than five years — this, just two weeks after Minnesota gave Zach Parise and Ryan Suter identical 12-year contracts.
Players who sign entry-level deals would do so for five years, not the current three. Then, of course, they would have to play five more years for true freedom.
The salary cap would stay, of course, but a salary floor, designed to make teams maintain a decent minimum payroll, will be dashed or at least downgraded.
Bettman did say the clubs would continue to provide the players with transportation, hotels and equipment at no charge but was mysteriously silent about per diem.
It is commonplace to yawn over such news and say that it is just a routine first shot in the negotiating battle. But it did not have to be such a cannonball. And why does it have to be a battle?
In March, someone said the NHL's revenue had increased 50 percent since the lost 2004-05 season and would exceed $3 billion in 2012. Well, actually it wasn't someone. It was Bettman.
Every game of the 2012 playoffs was shown nationally on an NBC Universal channel, and that was the first year of a 10-year contract with the network.
The salary cap itself has skyrocketed to $70.2 million per club. It was $39 million in 2005-06.
The floor has also risen, to $54 million. The union is probably open to discussing how that floor can be reasonably lowered. It also might be persuaded to consider lengthening entry-level contracts so the NHL could find a system more like baseball, when the really big money doesn't arrive until Year Seven of a player's career.
There is a lot to discuss and a yawning pasture of middle ground at which to aim.
It will be harder to get there when Bettman is firing scuds at Don Fehr, the former baseball negotiator who, in a masochistic moment, decided to take on the most relentlessly anti-union group of owners in all sports.
Some clubs are indeed struggling. Most are in the non-traditional markets that Bettman championed, where hockey was, is and always will be just a cult, or in New Jersey, which has three other NHL teams in a 90-mile radius and was bought by someone who couldn't handle it.
This could be solved by a generous, NFL-style revenue sharing system, but the NHL removes revenue-sharing money from teams who don't match the league's percentage revenue increase. And when the league's income reaches the runaway levels that it has, it makes it improbable to reach those targets. So small markets lose the transfusion they need.
Ten-year free agency is another insult.
There are just 113 players on NHL rosters who have played 10 years or more, and most of them won't be playing in two more years. Sidney Crosby, the league's top attraction, would have to play three more seasons to get to unrestricted free agency.
That is not unfair, in the grand scheme of things, but it is short-sighted. As baseball has shown, a fresh winter supply of free agents creates a 12-month marketing extravaganza.
Fehr and MLB commissioner Bud Selig were there, sitting in opposing tanks, when the 1994 postseason was lost. It was so humiliating they made sure it did not happen again.
Baseball has since found ways to make unimaginable amounts of money, primarily through advanced media and sponsorships. Labor peace is a business tool.
The players took a 22 percent cut last time. They know what has happened since. So Bettman should not assume that the union will cave in time for his beloved (and terminally overrated) Winter Classic, as David Stern hurriedly ended the NBA lockout to save the Christmas Day quintupleheader.
Locally, the only good news is that Teemu Selanne will be well-rested for the 2013-14 season, when he will be 43, and the Kings can tell each of their players to keep the Stanley Cup for a month, if desired.
But not all salaries will be rolled back. Bettman was only making $3.7 million during the lockout year. Now he makes $7.5 million. No word on his willingness to sacrifice.
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