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Owners can blame themselves

Guest Irishjim

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The NHL's decision last week to terminate the collective bargaining agreement was not, as you might have believed, a declaration of war or even a warning shot. It was merely a necessary legal formality confirming what the NHL players' association already knew: The league is looking for a new deal in September.

Seven years have passed since the NHL locked out an entire season after standing firm in its desire for a salary cap. The players had less resolve and were overmatched at the time, and the result was predictable. Wealthy owners waited until less-wealthy players caved to the biggest demand and implemented spending limits.

At the time, the players embarrassed themselves after grossly underestimating the strength of their opponent and overestimating their own power. They chucked an entire season under a half-baked fantasy they would come away winners when they had no chance.

It wasn't really a labor fight so much as a one-sided beating with owners getting mostly what they wanted. In addition to the salary cap, players accepted a 24 percent pay cut to get wages back in line. In return, they received 57 percent of the revenue and had the age minimum lowered for unrestricted free agency.

Looking back, the agreement actually worked for both sides.

Now, owners want a bigger piece of the pie.

Neither side is saying much, but it appears NHL owners are looking for a take that would be in line with other sports. In the NBA, where labor strife trimmed the season to 66 games this season, players are getting just more than 51 percent of the pot. In the money-making machine known as the NFL, players pocket about 47 percent.

"I'm sure they'll take a crack at it," Sabres goalie Ryan Miller said during locker-cleanout day. "Why not? Everybody else did it in football and basketball. It's business. You can't fault anybody for trying. I'm sure that will be a big thing. I'm sure they'll hang a few things over our head. I'm not sure what the biggest situation will be for us."

Commissioner Gary Bettman has said very little about upcoming negotiations other than making it clear he's prepared to talk whenever NHLPA chief Donald Fehr is ready. For now, Bettman would be better off keeping quiet for one reason: He doesn't have a strong argument the way he did during the 2004-05 lockout.

Owners are going to have a difficult time complaining about an agreement that they essentially drew up and forced upon the players seven years ago. If they're looking for a higher percentage of revenue, players will be looking for more say when it comes to funding or relocating troubled teams. Remember, that's how it should work in a so-called partnership Bettman claimed he desperately wanted.

In truth, many players would be inclined to let the good times roll. Revenues climbed every year after the lockout and could reach a record $3 billion, a 50 percent increase in seven years, in the near future. It's a nice haul for both sides, especially in difficult economic times.

The salary cap, which was just more than $39 million in the first year of the current deal, soared to $64.3 million this year while the salary floor was more than $43 million. The cap is tethered directly to revenue. And that's what the owners wanted.

Actually, that's what Bettman demanded.

Owners had the better argument seven years ago, but they're not going to get much sympathy from fans these days. Bettman will be dealing with a different beast in Fehr, once among the most powerful people in sports. He ran the Major League Baseball players' association for 24 years and knows his way around a bargaining table.

We'll see what happens in negotiations, which likely will begin next month after the Stanley Cup finals. There doesn't appear to be the same level of contentiousness that existed seven years ago between the two sides, which is a good sign. Neither side has the leverage required to overpower the other this time around.

No matter the rhetoric coming from players and the league in the coming weeks, look for them to reach an agreement without compromising another season. Both sides ultimately agree on this much: There's too much money at stake for them to throw away.

"The last thing they need to do is have some kind of a work stoppage," Miller said. "We have a fan base that's loyal and, honestly, I think the best sports fans out of any sport. We can't alienate them. We can't have a disagreement at this point in time. It's up to the NHL and the NHLPA to get it right. Do it the right way."

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We can't alienate them. We can't have a disagreement at this point in time. It's up to the NHL and the NHLPA to get it right. Do it the right way."

For this reason alone the Owners will try and push for even more concessions. As much as what Miller says makes sense, it comes across as the players are negotiating from the weaker position.

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