Labor feud puts Wild buzz on hold

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 15, 2012 - 11:27 AM

Two months after team signed pair of elite players, NHL is on verge of lockout.

The most anticipated season in Minnesota Wild history is in jeopardy.

The National Hockey League is headed toward a lockout for the second time in eight years -- the last one wiped out the entire 2004-05 season -- less than three months after the Wild shook the foundation of the league by signing star players Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.

If a new collective bargaining agreement is not reached by the NHL and the NHL Players' Association by 11 p.m. Saturday, none of the league's 30 teams will function. "Awful timing, it really is," Parise said. "I can't tell you how many people have come up to me in public and said how excited they are for the season. And for that to be in jeopardy is unfortunate. There's a great energy in the state right now for this team."

The Wild is supposed to start training camp next Saturday, play its preseason home opener Sept. 26 and open the regular season opener Oct. 13.

Odds are, none of those will happen.

The sides spoke on the phone Friday but haven't met formally since rejecting each other's proposals Wednesday, meaning a league that generated a record $3.3 billion in revenue last season could be in for a long hiatus.

"Nobody wants to make a deal and play hockey more than I do," Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "I feel terrible about it."

The fight basically comes down to the fact that the players currently take 57 percent of hockey-related revenue and the NHL says it cannot operate the league while receiving only 43 percent.

The league wants players to take pay cuts. The union refuses to take a penny less than the $1.87 billion in player salary it received last season, and wants that number to grow.

"That does require the league to grow revenues, but that's their job," said NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr, who headed the Major League Baseball Players' Association for 23 years and was part of five work stoppages in 32 years there.

Fehr advocates "shared sacrifice." He wants teams to cut other expenses and also wants a system for the richer teams to help the poorer ones through more innovative revenue sharing than the $195 million the NHL has proposed.

Money issues

The league claims more than half the teams are losing money and the league isn't profitable as a whole.

"For whatever reason, [lockouts] seem to be what [Bettman] likes to do," said Parise, saying it's time to address why small-market teams still struggle after losing a season for the expiring CBA. "I feel seven years down the road, [their proposal] isn't addressing the problem and we're going to be in the exact same spot."

Fehr, who didn't run the union during the 2004-05 lockout, feels the players made all the concessions when the NHL won its fight then for a salary cap, which Bettman said at the time would result in "economic stability for our franchises."

Bettman noted each team's salary-cap ceiling has risen from $39 million to $70.2 million since that lockout and that the average NHL salary has risen from $1.45 million to $2.55 million.

"We believe 57 percent [of revenue] is too much," said Bettman, noting that the NBA and NFL recently went through lockouts and "their players have recognized in these economic times that there was a need to retrench."

Over the NBA's new 10-year CBA, players receive between 49 and 51 percent of revenue. Over the NFL's new 10-year CBA, players receive between 47 and 48.5 percent.

Bettman is proposing a 49 percent player share in year one, 48 percent in year two and 47 percent in the final four years of a six-year CBA. The players propose receiving between 54.3 percent and 52.3 over five years, assuming continued 7.1 percent annual revenue growth for the league, which Bettman says "far exceeds what is realistic."

The Wild side

Wild owner Craig Leipold has not been permitted to comment, under NHL bylaws.

Leipold is on Bettman's negotiating committee. In April, Leipold said the Wild, for the fourth year in a row, didn't make money, "and that's one reason we need to fix our system."

But on July 4, the Wild signed Parise and Suter to identical 13-year, $98 million, lockout-protected deals (each was paid $10 million signing bonuses last month). The contracts were front-loaded to drop the annual cap figure to $7.53 million.

The NHL is trying to get rid of those types of contracts in the next CBA.

Nine days after Parise and Suter signed, the NHL made its first proposal, which included dropping the players' share of revenue from 57 percent to 43, asking for five-year maximum contracts, moving free agency from seven years of service to 10, and getting rid of salary arbitration.

"Embarrassing," Parise said. "It set the tone. It was a joke."

If the Wild didn't sign Parise and Suter to those contracts, another team would have, but Leipold still was accused of hypocrisy after "crying poor" in April.

His explanation in July: "We've been losing money and the way we were going, we were going to have another year of 'keep losing more money and more money and more money.' So if I'm going to make the kind of financial commitment to keep this team and move this forward, I'd rather do it growing it. This is a move to get us out of the hole that we've been digging."

"[But] this shows the system does need to be changed. ... There's a better way to run a business."

The ultimatum

Bettman says the NHL's proposal comes off the table Saturday night because of the damage a lockout will do to revenue.

Public opinion leaned the owners' way in 2004-05. This time, it is in the players' court. Fans feel managers and owners created this mess by handing out super-long, lucrative contracts, one using loopholes in the CBA they crafted to circumvent the very cap they wanted.

Wednesday, the league inched closer to a 50-50 split, drawing some of those fans back.

A work stoppage would halt momentum for a game that has never been better on the ice, and a business that has grown from $2.1 billion to $3.3 billion in annual revenue over the past seven years.

Bettman hopes hockey fans will come back in droves when it's over, as they did in 2005. The players stand firmly behind Fehr.

"We've never doubted the player unity," Bettman said. "The players were unified eight years ago. If they weren't unified, we never would have missed an entire season. We've never doubted their unity.

"And they shouldn't doubt ours."

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