Thursday, February 12, 2015

Ten years after the NHL cancelled a season: Was it worth it?

Ten years ago this week, the NHL was a league in crisis, on the verge of a self-inflicted disaster that was literally unprecedented in major pro sports history.

On February 10, 2005, with a lockout already dragging into its sixth month, the NHL and NHLPA walked away from the table, ending talks on a new collective bargaining agreement. On February 14, the league announced that the season would be canceled in two days. On February 15, the two sides traded offers, but remained far apart on a possible salary cap.

And so, on February 16, commissioner Gary Bettman made it official: The NHL would become the first major pro sports league to cancel its entire season.1

Your feelings about that week would have had a lot to do with your feelings about the state of the NHL in 2005. Maybe you saw it as a sacrilege, the ultimate triumph of naked greed over whatever idealism was left in professional sports. Or maybe you simply viewed it as a painful but necessary moment, like a limb being amputated to save a dying patient.

But in either case, it was a miserable time to be a hockey fan, and there were legitimate concerns over what it would all mean for the long-term health of the league and the sport itself. A new CBA was eventually reached on July 13, 2005, and the league resumed play in October. That brought the onset of the salary-cap era, a host of new rules, no small amount of concern for the future, and at least some degree of hope that a suffering league could right itself.

Ten years later, some of that hope has been realized; some of it looks almost pathetically optimistic in hindsight. Here’s a look back at 10 of the key changes that emerged from the wreckage of that miserable week in 2005, and where we find ourselves a decade later.

The Salary Cap

The hope: A new salary cap was the lockout’s central issue, and the owners made it clear that they wouldn’t play another game until they got one. By implementing a cap — or “cost certainty,” as Bettman annoyingly insisted on calling it — the league promised to level the playing field. Big-market teams like the Rangers, Red Wings, and Maple Leafs would no longer be able to spend with impunity, driving up salaries while pricing out their competition. Smaller markets would be able to retain their star players, and even have a shot at competing with the big boys for marquee free agents.

The reality: By any reasonable measure, the system has worked as designed. Yes, the cap has risen more quickly than anyone expected, thanks to surging revenues (more on that in a bit), but that would fall into the category of nice problems to have. Yes, we’ve all been forced to learn what the word “escrow” means. And sure, some teams eventually found and exploited loopholes, forcing the league into the messy business of patching the rules after the fact.

But in the big picture, the cap has worked. The owners have their cost certainty, and the big markets can no longer dominate. There’s an argument to be had about whether that’s really a good thing — having your best markets do as well as possible drives more revenue for everyone — but it’s what the league said it wanted, and it got it.

Franchise Stability

The hope: When the lockout ended, Bettman addressed hockey fans and offered three key promises for the future. The first: “an era of economic stability for our franchises.”

Four franchises had relocated during the ’90s, and others had come close enough to seem like a done deal. The NHL is notoriously reluctant to open the books on its teams, and the state of any individual franchise often depends on what particular PR story is being spun — teams that were doing great yesterday are suddenly struggling for their lives when a new arena deal is on the table today. But there’s little doubt that many teams were hurting badly in 2004, including several in Canada. A salary cap and a bigger slice of revenues would give those teams a chance to stabilize.

The reality: Again, the hopes here have largely been realized. One franchise, the Atlanta Thrashers, did relocate in 2011, but that situation was likely unsalvageable under any system. Others continue to be question marks, with ongoing whispers about teams being candidates for relocation. But so far, problem teams like the Panthers and Coyotes have survived, and once-struggling Canadian teams have thrived.2 We don’t live in the world of prosperity that Bettman promised, but the situation has unquestionably improved.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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