Can NHL Players and Owners Save Their Marriage?

Commissioner Gary Bettman of the National Hockey League speaks to the media at Crowne Plaza Times Square on September 13, 2012 in New York City. Photograph by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Pretty soon we will find out if the sport of hockey has gone completely dysfunctional and will toss a season because they cannot agree on relatively small matters. It’s a lot like a couple divorcing because they can’t stop arguing about who should do the dishes.

And that’s kind of where we’re at now. The therapist has fired the couple: Last week the National Hockey League and the players turned negotiations over to a mediator, and the mediators walked away saying these two were nuts. Then, on Tuesday, the kids met to work it out without Mom and Dad in the room. Players such as Sidney Crosby met at a hotel in Midtown Manhattan with owners, and with Commissioner Gary Bettman and player representative Donald Fehr elsewhere. It actually seemed to help.

On paper, it looks like a match that should work. The NHL Players’ Association and the owners have both tentatively agreed to a proposal that shares revenue roughly equally among both sides, which is how the National Basketball Association and the National Football League manage to get along and they seem to be doing alright. The hockey players didn’t get a 50/50 deal in the last round of negotiations—they were up to 57 percent at the close of the 2011-12 season—but it doesn’t sound like such a bad deal to most onlookers, and they might get there eventually. Time to play hockey, right?

Not quite. During the last agreement, owners ran up some large bills signing players to geologically long contracts. The New Jersey Devils, for example, signed forward Ilya Kovalchuk to a 17-year deal in 2010. That means he’s under contract until he’s 44. You can count on one hand the number of forwards playing at 44, and you don’t even have to open your fist. It was a clever way of avoiding salary restrictions.

The players would like the owners to honor these contracts no matter what, making sure that the new sharing doesn’t sink old deals, and are asking for $393 million set aside to do so. They’ve offered a kind of settlement of $211 million. That’s a difference of $182 million—not a lot in a business that generated more than $3 billion in revenue last year alone, a record, and not a lot when it’s actually buying the services of a premier player.

Players and owners are also arguing about how long a young player must stay with a team before letting the market set his salary—entering “unrestricted free agency,” in legal terms. This seems easy enough to solve. It might extend things a little longer, but not much.

So why can’t the players and owners just meet in the middle, get it done, and move on? It may be that it’s just gotten way too personal and the money isn’t the issue any more: This couple just can’t get along.

In the 1994 movie The Ref, Denis Leary—a huge hockey fan, by the way—played a burglar who kidnapped a feuding couple. He ended up saving their marriage. Fehr and Bettman may need a visit from Leary.

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