Labor War in NHL Is Next
By Alan Hahn
September 1, 2002
Sports has not totally rid itself of labor issues now that baseball
has avoided a strike with an 11th-hour agreement. The countdown now
begins for the NHL, which has two years left until the current
collective-bargaining agreement expires in September, 2004.
Earlier this summer, commissioner Gary Bettman asked NHLPA union
chief Bob Goodenow to begin negotiations for a new agreement.
Bettman, like many, fears a long and contentious process that might
spell doom for the 2004-05 season if the sides don't get to work
soon. Goodenow declined, however, and the general consensus is that
there will be a work stoppage in hockey two years from now.
Bettman has been careful to keep the growing concern in-house. An
unpublicized gag order has been implemented, according to several
general managers, regarding comments about the impending battle and
the problems of the current system. But a few players have been vocal
about the need to get an agreement in place before another work
stoppage. Because of a lockout during the most recent negotiations,
the NHL season was cut to 48 games in 1994-95.
"I don't think both parties have even come close to starting to
hammer out anything," said Islanders defenseman Adrian Aucoin, who
believes a lockout is inevitable for 2004-05. "It would be nice to
see some kind of progress, but it's like they have to wait for a
deadline to get anything done."
Hockey's labor issues are similar to the ones with which baseball
struggled. Bettman and the owners believe that without a hard salary
cap (Bettman would rather call it "cost certainty"), there is too
much of a disparity between the handful of wealthy teams and the poor
teams, most especially the Canadian-based teams that operate with the
weaker Canadian dollar.
The free-agent market mostly involves two or three teams that can
afford to pay high salaries to top players, leaving other teams
unable to bid. It was most evident this summer, when rich teams such
as the Rangers, Dallas Stars and Detroit Red Wings dominated the
The Rangers drew the greatest criticism for paying $9 million per
season to center Bobby Holik and $5 million per year to defenseman
Darius Kasparaitis. Both are talented players with character and
grit, but neither is considered a marquee star.
"The thing that aggravates me is that up until this summer, the guys
that made elite money at least were guys who sold tickets and filled
buildings," Vancouver Canucks GM Brian Burke said in July. "And I see
Bobby Holik get that kind of money and now we're paying elite money
to a second-line center ... That's where you scratch your head. What
the hell is going on?"
Even players were quietly shocked by the Rangers' actions. Though it
will benefit them in the short term, many agree it only emphasized
the problems that need to be addressed before Sept. 2004.
"Look over the course of the years," one player said. "We've always
done well. We have to give back at some time."