Due to NHL commissioner Gary Bettmans threat of a 1 million fine to any team that speaks publicly about the ongoing lockout, no one outside of the Sharks front offices or NHL Headquarters in New York knows exactly how the San Jose ownership group feels about the labor battle.
Publicly, and to no ones surprise, the NHL is presenting a unified front, although the notion that all 30 owners are fine with shutting down the league is absurd (as is the NHLPAs insistence that every one of the 700-plus players dont mind missing paychecks that will never be recovered).
Its been well documented that only eight NHL owners need to be in agreement with Bettman in order to deny any CBA proposal, although really, its seven, as the broke Phoenix Coyotes are run by the league. Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle voiced his frustration about that structure in early October, when his comments here were circulated coast-to-coast in various national and Canadian hockey publications and websites.
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CBCs Elliotte Friedman on Wednesday made his best educated guess as to the clubs that are considered the hard-liners, and are therefore holding up the bargaining process while they insist on getting as many givebacks (and money) from the players. In his estimation, they are: Boston, Anaheim, Columbus, Florida, the New York Islanders, Phoenix, St. Louis, Washington and Dallas.
Friedman went on to speculate that teams such as Tampa Bay and Nashville want a better collective bargaining agreement, but recognize not playing is worse.
Which, I would hypothesize, is exactly how the Sharks ownership group is viewing this thing.
As Ive said in the past, the Sharks are a team that should be making money or at least, losing much less. They are clearly run extremely well, selling out 110 consecutive regular season games. There are numerous team-sponsored community events for fans and season ticket holders throughout the year. They play in one of the loudest buildings in the league, and the atmosphere is electrifying. Fans dont have to sit through sales pitches for cheap merchandise at every stoppage of play, and there are no fat guys gyrating to Eye of the Tiger in the stands just to get an artificial rise from the capacity crowd (okay, so maybe thats a personal preference).
Most importantly, they have iced one of the most competitive teams in the league in the last decade, featuring eight straight playoff appearances and a hat trick of Final Fours.
The result? A self-proclaimed 15 million loss last season, and, according to one source, more than 60 million down the drain over the previous four years combined.
The Sharks deserve a friendlier collective bargaining agreement, centered around a lower salary cap. The lockout has become a necessary evil to achieve that, as the players association has not shown much of a willingness to face the financial reality of a middle-of-the-road club like San Jose.
Shortly after the 2011-12 season ended, Sharks ownership, represented by Kevin Compton and Stratton Sclavos, sat down for a Q-and-A with the local media. Weve referenced that discussion here a number of times in (including July 16), but it bears repeating that, according to them, revenues have not kept up with expenses, and Sclavos even admitted that seeing the salary cap rise as it has to 63.4 million last year has been frustrating.
Whats probably just as exasperating is that the Sharks arent one of the teams to blame for where the league is now in terms of player costs. Sure, theyve signed some cornerstone guys like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dan Boyle, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic to big deals, but none of those were blatantly awful at the time they were inked. The Sharks have avoided the monster, long-term contracts that some clubs hand out like fun-size Snickers bars on Halloween night.
In the leagues most recent CBA proposal, it was revealed that if a player retired before fulfilling his contract, the team that signed him to that contract would be on the hook for the deal in terms of salary cap space. For example, if the Kings Mike Richards decided to hang up his skates this summer, the Flyers would be burdened with a 5.75 million cap hit through 2020 when Richards contract expires, since they were the ones that originally signed him. Ouch.
Privately, the Sharks ownership group and front office likely snickered in approval at such a clause, as it could potentially punish teams like Philadelphia for handing out such contracts that have driven up overall costs for everyone else.
But, getting back to the point its hard to imagine that the Sharks owners would be among those pushing for a my way or the highway approach that has so far been utilized by Bettman and his hard-liners. San Jose is coming off of its worst regular season since 2002-03, and an aging core is only getting older. Other local teams like the Giants, As and 49ers are all at or near the top of their respective leagues, and all are competing for the Bay Area citizenrys discretionary income which just got more expensive for Sharks fans, after a summer ticket price increase.
A lost season, on the heels of the previous lockout of 2004-05, could be disastrous for a number of teams, including the Sharks. Sure, the rabid fan base that packs HP Pavilion would likely remain, but there is much more to generating income than ticket sales alone. Its the casual fan the one attends three or four games a year, watches maybe a dozen more, buys the odd hat or t-shirt, and tunes in for the playoffs, that could look for other alternatives for their attention and their hard-earned cash.
The players association, at the moment, looks like its playing the dangerous game of counting on internal strife to develop among the owners. Whether or not that occurs could determine if theres hockey, or if another season gets flushed away.
And if its the latter that happens, every last owner and player will bear some of the responsibility.