Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Talks will escalate into all-out war soon

Just a matter of time before gloves come off

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Sooner or later ownership is going to begin to look at their players as the other side. And at that point they're going to stop handing them money.

No one likes to personalize negotiations but let's call it what it is, owners vs. players. No one is galvanized in an us-against-them mode just yet but it's coming.

Players have been chirping a bit at ownership for the last couple of days and at some point an owner with one too many scotches under his belt is going to say what he really feels. Right now it's a labour negotiation. But soon it will be a labour war and once that happens it will be hard to imagine owners and players coming to agreement on long-term multi-million dollar pacts. In fact, it would be shocking if that time isn't just around the corner.

Here in Winnipeg there will come a time when negotiations between the club and Evander Kane are put on hold until a new CBA is agreed upon. Both sides have clammed up entirely on the subject. With Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and Kane's agent Craig Oster in Slovakia this week at the Ivan Hlinka under-18 tournament there may have been some movement, but there's been no sign of that.

The Jets and Kane have continued their summer-long game of chicken but the rules they are playing under are about to be suspended, leaving this deal in limbo.

The Jets put a six-year deal worth a little less than $29 million on the table back in July. A number of players, Jeff Skinner, Max Pacioretty and Wayne Simmonds have signed six-year deals in the interim and a value appears to be established. Still the two sides have been unable to close a deal.

Contracts cannot be signed after Sept. 15 should the current CBA expire. What the landscape will look like when a new labour agreement is crafted is anybody's guess, although it's no secret ownership is targeting second contracts and the age of free agency.

Those are two areas that could dramatically alter Kane's status, value and leverage.

Kane's camp wants Skinner money (six years at $34 million) while the Jets are pushing for something more like Pacioretty's pact (six years at $27 million). Simmonds signed this week for the same term and $23 million. The numbers suggest Kane comes in somewhere in the middle of this group, but if Cheveldayoff and Oster can't get a deal done soon the lack of a CBA will do them the favour of ripping the offer on the table into shreds.

It's all about growth: The biggest red herring from this perspective in the players' CBA proposal to ownership is the fact the player giveback is based on aggressive league-wide hockey-related revenue growth.

The players want $1.91 billion in 2012-13, $1.98 billion in 2013-14 and $2.12 billion in 2014-15 as their share of league revenues to be allocated towards salaries. Those numbers represent raises of two, four and six per cent from the 57 per cent share, or $1.87 billion, the players got as their slice of the $3.3 billion of league revenue in 2011-12.

If league revenues continue to grow at a rate of seven per cent annually, as they have under the current CBA, the players share of revenue will slide below 57 per cent. But it also works the other way.

If league revenues grow at a slower rate the players' share will either hold at 57 per cent or even grow beyond that number.

The players "giveback" is premised exclusively on the league's ability to continue to grow revenues at an aggressive pace.

For franchises struggling to meet their salary burdens any prospect of the floor and cap rising is unacceptable.

Pick a side: The perspective I've taken to this point in the CBA talks has been to favour whatever deal best suits the city of Winnipeg and its hockey fans. We're a small market city that needs protection from a hard cap and increased revenue sharing. Those two things happen to be the biggest issues in this debate.

The players don't want a hard cap and they don't want to give back any of their percentage points of league revenue.

On the other side, the owners want to cry poor at the bottom end but have no interest in helping one another out.

Both sides have to give.

The players' share of hockey related revenue sits at 57 per cent right now and that's too high. The notion they gave last time and shouldn't have to again is hard to sympathize with when one considers the average salary in the NHL is $2.5 million. We should all have to deal with such problems.

The owner side of things is just as hard to get behind. They want help but they don't want to help each other. Expecting the players to continue to give while not altering the economic model is ridiculous. Revenue has grown league wide but here we are again with the NHL crying poor. They need to distribute the wealth in a better fashion.

There are 10 or so franchises in the NHL making big money. They need to make a choice. Send some of that cash down the road to their poor relations or cut them off entirely and shrink the league to include 24 markets or so that can really cut it.

The players don't want that and neither do the owners. So they're both going to have to give.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 18, 2012 C1

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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