- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 18, 2012


My favorite part of the latest CBA proposal by NHL owners is the word “mutual.” As in: The deal will be for six years, with a “mutual option” for a seventh. Given the increasingly strained relations between the two sides, it’s hard to imagine them mutually agreeing on much of anything — now or then. I mean, if the owners said the puck was round, the players would probably insist it was square.

Another highlight is the bosses’ contention they need a bigger slice of the $3.3 billion pie — 50 percent instead of the 43 they got under the old agreement — because the cost of doing business has gone up. “These increased costs,” the league says, “include amounts dedicated to the enhanced comfort of the players.” The next time a Washington Capital gets splattered against the boards, I want Smokin’ Al Koken to ask him between periods, “How’s that ‘enhanced comfort’ going?”

OK, time to get serious, because it’s Get Serious Time for the NHL. If that wasn’t clear before, it was clear Thursday, when Gary Bettman, Donald Fehr and their seconds — wearing their Get Serious suits and their Get Serious faces — sat down to talk in Toronto. Bettman would like to wrap up negotiations in the next week or so, which he says would enable the league to salvage a full, 82-game season. But union chief Fehr, whose resume includes staring matches with baseball owners, isn’t one to act hastily. (For one thing, the NHL’s offer doesn’t mention anything about free Zamboni rides.)

Some parts of the proposal are quite interesting. For instance, the owners are asking for a five-year limit on contracts. Or to put it another way, they want Ineptitude Insurance, want to be saved from themselves and their nasty habit of going overboard to lock up essential players — especially those who don’t turn out to be so essential.

This means, among other things, that the league now considers the deals the Capitals gave Alex Ovechkin (13 years, $124 million) and Nick Backstrom (10/$67M) to be ill-advised. And maybe, in retrospect, they are. Ovechkin’s production has dropped off significantly, and Backstrom is dealing with concussion issues that could resurface at any time.

When the players signed, though, the contracts made perfect sense to Ted Leonsis, one of hockey’s forward thinkers. Not only did they show his commitment to winning, they also made the team’s hallowed “brand” synonymous with its two brightest young stars and — this can’t be underestimated — established cost certainty. No matter what happens in the marketplace, it won’t affect what Leonsis pays Ovie and Backie for, in all probability, the rest of their primes.

After the latter re-upped, one opinionator wrote: “It’s a great deal for Washington because Backstrom could have very easily made more based on the combination of his production to date and the likelihood he’ll continue to improve over the next couple of seasons (and there’s no reason to believe that won’t happen).”

As we’ve seen, though, there are all kinds of reasons to believe it won’t happen — from injuries to reduced incentive to changes in the game. And let’s face it, the game definitely changed during the last CBA. Despite rule changes to open up the ice and create more goals, scoring is getting closer and closer to pre-2003-lockout levels.

The playoffs, meanwhile, have become a shot-blocking festival of, in the Caps’ case last season, 2-1 and 3-2 games. The owners are focused on fixing their business model at the moment, but they might want to tinker a bit more with the rules.

Still, the last CBA did get one thing exactly right: By instituting a hard salary cap, it leveled the playing surface. In the past nine seasons, the NHL has had nine different champions. Never before has it had a stretch like that. Some clubs (e.g. Toronto, Montreal, New York Rangers) still turn a much higher profit than others, an imbalance the league is trying to address through increased revenue sharing, but no team is at a huge competitive disadvantage. If you’re not contending for a Cup at least every once in a while, it’s because you don’t know what you’re doing.

The Get Serious suits and Get Serious faces don’t seem to have made much progress Thursday. Bettman said the get-together lasted only an hour and declared himself “totally disappointed” with the NHLPA’s counteroffers. In other news, Backstrom has joined Ovechkin on Dynamo Moscow, creating a pairing to rival the Protopopovs. CBA talks may be stalled, but hockey goes on. Sort of.

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