The Brass Bonanza: What the Lockout Did for the NHL

Greg SheehanCorrespondent IFebruary 27, 2009

Perhaps a moniker for the arrogance of the NHL in the days before the lockout, the “Brass Bonanza” was actually the fight song of the erstwhile Hartford Whalers.

For the diminutive selection of fans who remember New England's second hockey team, hearing the music brings back smiles, but eventually frustration.

The Hartford Whalers satisfied the needs of two very small cities between New York and Boston (the combined population of Hartford and Springfield was under 400,000 in 2008).

Local fans adored their team—but in terms of NHL finance, Hartford was one of many failing franchises.

Carolina's market potential was greater, and in the face of market inflation in other sports, a heart transplant was required, in this case from an unwilling donor.

Like an allegory from “Any Given Sunday,” the battle of hockey purism vs. capitalism took place on a rink with a dollar sign painted just beneath the center line.

In the years leading up to the lockout, the talent of the NHL had been watching contracts escalate in other sports, and the union fought for an increasingly larger cut of the cake.

This forced an impasse in the NHL labor equation; the collective bargaining agreement (C.B.A.) operated with no stipulated salary cap.

Premier talent commanded ridiculous salaries, perhaps acceptable in a more marketable sport, and with no ceiling. In fallout, the contracts of medium- and lower-level talents bore higher salaries, and with no regulations on team and individual player spending, the NHL spent more money than it generated.

In the last year before the lockout, the NHL lost $221 million and there was not enough income to support 20 out of 30 NHL teams.

The NHL was paying out a higher percentage of their annual income to their players than any other sport. The few teams that collected profit were able to put together more competitive teams, offsetting the parity of the league and furthering its financial disarray.

The owners who paid these salaries were damaging the league, and many considered their own pocketbooks before the best interest of the league, and the players who flaunt their talents are just as culpable. Cf: Boston’s Dave Ellett and Harry Sinden, circa 1997.

While player contracts followed the success of other major sports, the NHL’s marketability did not—making contract regulations an impending necessity.

Owners proffered limitations on what players could be paid based on revenue (a term called "cost certainty"), which in effect is a salary cap, and the player's union deflected this away from the bargaining table faster than a puck from Gerry Cheevers’ face.

The players’ stance was that salary caps and their progeny will never be accepted by the union; that the NHL was over reporting their deficit; and that the state of the NHL was a nation of profit.

The former collective bargaining agreement was a labor contract entered into by the NHL (owners) and the NHL Players’ Association (union), and carried with it an implied duty of good faith.

Thus, while the individual player sought more money, the players' union bargained in good faith that a salary cap was bad for the constituency.  The NHL could not institute a salary cap upon an unwilling union without constituting unfair labor practice. 

With the salary cap wedged in a scrum, an impasse seemed inevitable.  The CBA expired on Sept. 15, 2004 and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced a lockout; knocking the union out cold, and at the same time ripping revenues away from owners and local businesses around the venues.

When sports labor disputes reach an impasse, each opponent is entitled to legal recourse: the owners may lockout the players, and the union may strike.

At this point in the pre-season, a union strike would have been a flimsy jab at the owners who have two available defensive responses to a strike. 

They could have grappled with the international labor conflict which precludes using replacement players for Canadian franchises, or, avoid severe pecuniary loss by foregoing the myriad operational and labor contracts that bolster an NHL campaign. 

A union strike is most effective during the season, compromising the potential profit and goodwill from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, when players have already earned a chunk of their annual income and abstinence cuts into the aforementioned operating and advertising contracts already extended to the NHL. 

In the other corner, the lockout takes the effect of a first round TKO.  Immediately after the CBA ended on Sept. 15, the NHL used their concerted action and every team locked their doors to NHL players until they could come to terms.

The NHL avoided entering into any operating contracts needed to undergo a season, and they avoided paying the labor contracts owed to the players. 

The NHL prepared for an idle term rather than losing millions of dollars again, and the union opinion was very clear; never to accept a salary cap, even if it would take years.

Players who love the game could be playing in minor and amateur leagues for much less money, and the NHL’s only means of profit seemed to be down to their residual merchandising value.

Representatives of each side used their legal guns to fight for money and the dispute had hurt the fan the most, who was penalized like a third party jumping in to a Craig Mactavish beatdown. 

Beyond the NHL’s popularity, ancillary participants were compromised: venues built with government money supported by publicly held bonds, concession and maintenance staff, team administrative personnel, local restaurants and vendors, airlines, parking garages, hotels, car rental agencies, luxury suite sales, broadcasting and sponsorship agreements, Las Vegas bookies…

Was it worth it?

The NHL is currently in the peak of their desired structure. Salary restrictions keep teams from loading up on talent year after year, and while there are some standout teams in the league, the fight for the playoffs have never been closer.

Games in November have much more meaning, and the competitive balance of the NHL is the model for any sporting conglomerate.

This means smaller cities like Hartford could have been spared, it means Buffalo will continue to keep its team and Toronto might even gain one, or possibly Hamilton, Ontario.

This means that teams like Columbus and Nashville can build from the ground up, and this year we're starting to see their scouting investments pay off in terms of on-ice talent.

Some may say that the NHL is doomed because of the lockout, but there really can't be a better system.

Did they lose some fans? Of course, but those fans are missing out because the sport is better now, and if this trend of parity continues, new fans will emerge and old ones will return.

Lets not confuse a poor world-wide economy with poor NHL performance, and lets not expect the NHL to bounce in to the forefront as our nation's top sport when it was never headed in that direction to begin with.

Hockey is back.  It's not going backwards anymore. It's time for you to come back.

Read more from Greg Sheehan at


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