Patrick Reusse: NHL labor anxiety trumps Wild enthusiasm

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 25, 2012 - 11:24 PM

Just as hockey fans are ready to get excited about the Wild for the first time in years, the specter of a work stoppage again looms over the NHL.

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NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr, speaking with reporters Thursday in Toronto, has a pretty good track record in labor disputes from his time with the baseball players’ union.

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The Twins are putrid. The Vikings have a strong chance to be putrid again. The Timberwolves are more interesting than at any time since 2004, and yet they remain underdogs to reach the playoffs in the Western Conference.

The only true optimism with Minnesota's major pro teams exists with the Wild. This condition arrived on July 4, when owner Craig Leipold broke the tradition of what had been a mostly frugal organization and signed free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to twin 13-year, $98 million contacts.

A season-ticket base that wilted through a series of boring, unsuccessful winters came roaring back to life. The Wild claims it regained over 4,000 season tickets in a few weeks after the signings.

For sure, this would be the most anticipated season since the Wild played its first in St. Paul in 2000-01. Full-throttle media coverage of the Parise-Suter Era could begin on Sept. 22, with the veterans scheduled to start training camp at Xcel Energy Center.

There's one obstacle to all this excitement:

The odds appear strong that the start of training camp could be closer to Dec. 22 than the tentative date in September.

NHL owners are rushing hell-bent toward a Sept. 15 lockout that would threaten the start (and perhaps the finish) of a season for the second time in eight years.

Commissioner Gary Bettman and his owners were willing to lose the entire 2004-05 season in order to impose a salary cap on the players that was going to fix the league's financial woes.

The teams in the NHL's best markets paid no real price for this, as the customers came back quickly after the lost season. In St. Paul, the payroll was cut and no serious attempt at competing was undertaken for the 2005-06 season, and yet Xcel Energy Center remained full.

NHL owners benefited from this loyalty. They also benefited from being able to take 20 percent of the players' salaries and put the millions in escrow -- a part of the post-lockout deal that still raises the hackles of players on the losing side of that negotiation.

The NHL did fine in the seven years of the labor contract that is set to expire on Sept. 15. Annual revenues went from $2.1 billion in 2003-04 to $3.3 billion last season. That's an average increase of 7 percent, not bad for a league without a lucrative national TV deal in the United States.

Everything considered, the current negotiation between owners and players should have been relatively smooth, but it hasn't turned out that way for several reasons:

• Selected owners climbed in bed with agents to figure out how to get around the salary cap by signing extraordinarily long deals. The most recent of those were Leipold's contracts with Parise and Suter. Now, one push from Bettman is to eliminate the front-loaded contracts; in other words, it's the same old deal of players being asked to protect the owners from themselves.

• Bettman became NHL commissioner on Feb. 1, 1993. Over the next five years, Phoenix and Raleigh, N.C., landed existing franchises. Nashville came into the league in 1998, Atlanta in 1999 and Columbus and St. Paul in 2000. Throw out the Wild, and these moves to nontraditional markets have been a financial flop.

Now, Bettman wants the players to take a big hit on their share of revenue (from 57 percent to 43) to ease the financial strain on these locales that were always long shots as hockey markets.

The NHL Players Association has a better idea -- large revenue sharing between the league's haves and have-nots -- but the Rangers, Maple Leafs, etc. aren't buying into that.

• The owners aren't dealing with a lightweight such as Bob Goodenow, as was the case in 2004. The head of the NHLPA is now Don Fehr, previously the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association.

Fehr inherited a strong baseball union from Marvin Miller and kept it that way through several successful negotiations. If the NHLPA members know anything of labor history in sports, they will hang with Fehr -- not even agreeing to give away snow in the wintertime, until they get a deal where they take a much smaller hit and let the owners solve their issues.

The union members should keep in mind that Fehr has negotiated against, and beaten, tougher foes than Bettman.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500-AM. • preusse@startribune.com

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