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Kovacevic: NHL deflects its own problems

| Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012, 11:19 p.m.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks to reporters.  (AP)
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks to reporters. (AP)

At 2:03 p.m. Thursday, the NHL cemented its status as professional sports' most laughably operated league by wiping out the first two weeks of the 2012-13 season.

I'd call it a joke, except it's about as funny as a Scott Hartnell smirk.

Ask the layman employees and ancillary businesses that will lose untold money.

Ask the most obsessive fans in North America.

Ask the players who have demonstrated that all they want is to get back to work.

Matt Niskanen, one of the Penguins training regularly at Southpointe, stepped off the ice Thursday morning and expressed that quite nicely: “Camp is supposed to be ending right now. It's really starting to hit us. It's just boring. So boring. We just want to play hockey.”


With one click of Gary Bettman's send button, the NHL wiped out all 82 games set to be played Oct. 11-24, maybe for good. That included, of course, the Penguins' home opener next Friday against the Islanders.

Also wiped out was any urgency to get a deal done soon that could save a full season.

And for what?

To see who will pounce on the last 1-2 percent from the sport's all-time high revenue pool of $3.3 billion?

To see which of Bettman or Donald Fehr has the bigger ego?

It's probably a little bit of both, actually, but I say it's way more of this: The NHL's richest teams must find a way to share with those at the bottom.

And, yes, that includes the Penguins, who have climbed the league's financial ladder since moving to Consol Energy Center.

The salary cap, instituted with the 2004 lockout, was a wonderful thing. Payrolls and salaries were reined in. The teams in Canada were healthy again. And local fans can thank the cap — and Bettman and the owners' resolve — for their half a decade of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Trouble is, that cap came with a floor. There was now a minimum payroll, too. Sounded great in theory, but the reality was that poorer teams such as the Panthers, Predators and Coyotes lost money in trying to meet that figure. Because no meaningful revenue sharing was put in place, the cap simply allowed the richer teams — Rangers, Red Wings, Leafs, Bruins, Flyers — to keep more profit, with little of that money trickling down.

Incredibly, that's what the owners want the players to fix.

I know, right?

Despite this, the players seem open to concessions. They now take 57 percent of all revenue, higher than any other sport, and the owners' initial proposal was a draconian cut to 43 percent. The players came back with 53.4 percent. It's at least a start.

But the revenue sharing?

Fehr and the union suggested expanding it but got nowhere. Some spun it as Fehr seeking to soften the cap with an NBA-style luxury tax. That would be awful for the game, I agree. But this proposal was more aligned with Major League Baseball's revenue sharing, where the top half of revenue-generating teams passes along varying percentages of their revenues to the bottom half.

That practice alone doesn't solve baseball's imbalance, to say the least, but it would for the NHL given the hard cap.

Forget it, though.

The NHL's richer teams have no wish to part with their new profits. Consider that Bettman's staunchest allies right now are Jeremy Jacobs in Boston and Ed Snider in Philadelphia. Their motivation is obvious. Blaming Bettman is missing the point. He's in no position to reach into these gentlemen's wallets.

If the NHL were serious about addressing long-term issues, it would expand revenue sharing and it would move the Panthers and the subsidized Coyotes to the pending new arenas in Seattle and Quebec.

But that won't happen, either, so he'll keep laying it on the players.

And the layman employees.

And you.

And the league will wait as long as necessary to get exactly what it wants without budging.

Know what bugs me the most about this process?

In the 20 days since the NHL lockout began, there have been exactly four days of talks. And three of those didn't involve finances, the core issue. The Penguins' players insist that Fehr and the union were open to talking on all 20 of those days.

I emailed Bill Daly, the NHL's deputy commissioner, to ask why the league wouldn't at least talk before canceling games.

Daly's reply: “The union is not prepared to talk about the most meaningful issues, relating to a fair division of league-wide revenues and other system-related matters. Until we can make progress in those areas, we will remain a long way from getting a deal done.”

So there's a pre-condition to returning to the table?

Anyone up for curling?

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