NHL players have advice for the NBA: Make a deal

  • Article by: JERRY ZGODA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 2, 2011 - 10:08 AM

Hockey players who were locked out for the 2004-05 season urge a settlement.

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Lessons from the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 NHL season shouldn't be lost on NBA players, who are locked out by the league's owners. "It's not worth it,'' said Bill Guerin, executive director of the NHL players' union at the time. "Get a deal done.''

Photo: PAUL SANCYA, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Just when resolution seemed within reach last week, NBA labor talks again splintered, leaving rich and richer guys still faced with the possibility of an unprecedented lost season if they don't come to their senses.

As for the NHL, the Wild and players old enough to have experienced their locked-out 2004-05 season ...

Been there, done that.

"Nobody wants to go back and revisit that, right?" Wild forward Matt Cullen said.

Back then, NHL owners and players fought through one entire season and well into the next summer before they agreed on a new labor deal that instituted a hard salary cap and rolled back players' salaries 24 percent.

Seven years later, that agreement restored competitive balance to a league previously dominated by the Detroits, Colorados and New Jerseys, but it still couldn't keep some owners from awarding silly contracts and next summer the two sides might go right back into contentious negotiations over the next contract.

So ... was it worth the good fight?

"That's a tough one to answer," Wild assistant coach Darby Hendrickson said.

Hendrickson signed what became the last NHL contract of his career before the lockout. When it finally ended, Colorado did not re-sign him. His NHL career was over.

"Whether you're a young player or a veteran, everyone wants to play and the perception from the outside is that everyone looks greedy," said Hendrickson, who worked as a union divisional representative when he retired after playing his final two pro seasons in Europe. "It's unfortunate. You look back and you wish the season wasn't missed. There were things you believed in and tried to be strong on and ultimately at the end of the day, owners had their beliefs.

"I always felt I owed a lot to the guys who came before me. I made the money I did because of them and I felt a responsibility to all the players who would come after me. I think everyone did."

But in retrospect, the owners held firm and got the deal they wanted.

Bill Guerin, vice president for the players' union executive committee at the time, recently told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as much.

"It's not worth it," said Guerin, who was perhaps the biggest crusader for the players' cause back then. "Get a deal done. I learned a big lesson: It's not a partnership, it's their league, and you are going to play when they want. It's not worth it to any of them to burn games or to burn an entire year. Burning a year was ridiculous."

Money lost ... or memories?

Guerin lost $9 million in salary during that season. At age 35, he had a poor season when the league resumed play and Dallas bought him out of his contract. He played four more seasons with four different teams after that and retired after 18 seasons in 2010, but he figures he never got back the money lost from that missed season.

"Guys in the NBA making $15 million or however much better think long and hard about this," he said.

Looking back, Cullen says he doesn't think about the money lost -- unlike Guerin, he was a fifth-year player who wasn't exactly earning a superstar's wage -- although he's sure he did at the time.

"I don't think that's the thing most guys look back and say they're ticked off about, that they missed a year of paychecks," said Cullen, who like many others played in Europe that season. "I don't really think that's the issue. I mean, they feel like it was a missed opportunity. You just don't know how long you have to play this game and you're missing a whole year for something that seems, from the outside anyway, like it should be straightforward to resolve.

"It just seems foolish to waste a whole year on negotiating something. I know it's a fact of life and that's the way it is sometimes. But as a player, you're thinking, 'Man, how can they not get this resolved?' when we've got a whole season at stake, we've got tons of fans and there's jobs lost in arenas around the league?"

A changed game

Cullen does credit that lockout season to time the league spent contemplating rules changes that have made it a more entertaining product. Those rules included five-minute overtimes featuring 4-on-4 play and a shootout if the score remained tied thereafter and changes that helped eliminated all the obstruction -- clutching, grabbing, hooking -- that had slowed the game until then.

"They took a hard look at the rules and the game now is better for it," he said. "That's the best thing that came out of the lockout."

For every Guerin who lost $9 million that season, there were other, younger players who saw their salaries rolled back 24 percent as well but believe, seven years later, that they ultimately benefitted from that hard-fought deal.

Wild defenseman Nick Schultz is one of those guys.

"Now that it has passed, I don't even think about the money I lost," said Schultz, who had just signed a new three-year contract before the lockout. "It changed a lot of the rules. Now you see younger players coming out of their entry-level contract getting big deals. Before, you had to be 31 and work your way up before you earned your money.

"In that sense, it affected me: I became a free agent a lot younger than I would have, so I got more money sooner than I would have."

In 2008, Schultz signed a six-year, $21 million contract extension at age 25.

Seven seasons after that lost season, Schultz is earning $3.6 million this season, Cullen $3.5 million.

Given all that has come and gone since then, Cullen shrugs when asked if that missed season of memories and salary was worth it.

"Geez, that's an interesting question, a very interesting question," he said. "I guess I never really looked back and thought about it. I'm just happy we're back playing and not staring at a lockout. I don't know ... but it's a good question."

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