Friday, November 23, 2012

A Tale of Two Habs

Yesterday, we were treated to a most unusual event, hockey players competing with each other. In this case, it was two players familiar to recent Habs fans: Roman Hamrlik and Erik Cole.

The episode began with a now-very-familiar interview emerging from an Eastern European news report. In it, Roman Hamrlik was reported to be critical of an approach that he deemed to be going down the wrong path and voiced a desire to get back to play before any more money is lost by the industry and players alike.

The episode turned into an event when Erik Cole took it upon himself to respond via the media, with the equivalent of a solid body check to steal the puck from the big Czech defender.

I find the whole thing rather interesting as it does provide a good glimpse into what different parties within a union are thinking. Though the tendency is to proclaim that one party is right, one is wrong, or that one is selfish and one is standing true to values, my personal take is that both guys are pretty accurately reflecting the situations in which they find themselves.


Hamrlik

Hamrlik, as we all know has played more than a thousand games in the league, and as he rightly pointed out in follow-up phone calls and interviews, is one of the very oldest statesmen of the league. As a veteran in his late thirties, the issues he sees as important at this stage of his career are different to those through the Cole lens. As it stands, he has one year left on a 3.5 million a year contract and that money is slipping away. In addition, I would imagine, he is correct in recognizing that if no NHL sees him play in North America this year, he is unlikely to be at the top of many lists for a new contract come July or whenever new contracts might be signed again.

Is he selfish? Yes, but he is also representing a constituency rather plainly. And it's not an insignificant constituency. Players with contracts running out at the margins, whether because of age or skill or whatever, are all at risk of leaving all future money on the table:

On if he’s worried he may have played his last game in the NHL: “In 2004, 241 players were lost to the lockout. I mean, I can sacrifice. But like I said, this is my third lockout. I think I’ve sacrificed a lot. We’re all lucky. We’re hockey players playing professionally... I’m grateful to play the game. I still have some energy and want to play one or two more years and that’s it. But this is for my future. I could be done. I mean, who knows? If I can sign one more year, I’ll be lucky.”



It is not something that should be roundly dismissed as it is by some meatheads who utter the usual "head up" threats from the comfort of a twitter feed.

No, I wouldn't want Hamrlik negotiating on my behalf for anything, but if I'm in his boat, I'm happy he spoke.


Cole

OK, so Hamrlik hero, Cole villain? No, not really. He did come off as a petulant child in the interview I read, and I'm sure he'll regret having roundly insulted a player that many respect, but as I said, both have valid points.

Cole is in a different stage of his career than Roman Hamrlik and it shows. His contract does not expire until well after this lockout should end, so his employ is secure. His contract was even structured to take care of the possibility of a lockout.

Where Cole is right is that to negotiate, one can't go into the room as Hamrlik would and simply say, what can you give me now. This is the game the owners are playing, and in order to improve their offer, a negotiating partner needs to at least appear willing to sacrifice.

Cole though must see the forest for the trees. His views are as coloured by his own situation as Hammer's and he would not be the altruist he casts himself as if the situations were reversed, I imagine. The 5-year term that is being proposed in the current NHLPA will give him a nice opportunity to wear Hamrlik's shoes next time around, but until then he should recognize that the grappling he and his fellow highly paid stars are doing is in large part to maintain their short-term stake.

After all, how quickly did the union come to the 50% figure for those future players, while proposing clauses that guarantee a higher percentage for current guys. We haven't once heard talk of 53.5% for every year, or any fight for a higher percentage for the class of 2017. Yet, there's been a lot of concern from those who got big signing bonuses and long contracts to hold onto every penny promised.

I respect Cole as a player very much, and I would definitely want him on my negotiating team, but I still frown on him for speaking to reporters without much thought for the plight of other groups of which he is not a part. I am disappointed he tried to paint someone like Hamrlik (who comes across in all the stories and voice interviews as sensible and sincere) as a man with screws loose. It was not his shining moment in a Habs uniform.


Neuvirth

Perhaps more important than Hamrlik's comments were those of his younger teammate, Mchal Neuvirth. Neuvirth could indeed have a future in the league, but a lost season could also hurt that greatly. He is not a big money-maker, so why does he support Hamrlik? Well apparently, he sees reason to do so:

"I agree 100 percent with Hammer," Neuvirth told TVA Nova Sport in the Czech Republic. "This lockout is not about majority of players, I think. It is about several superstars with big contracts."



This is biting. And I am a bit puzzled as to why it hasn't received even more attention. Right from the get-go, it's fairly clear that the NHLPA has been putting the stars up front, and from the analysis of their offers it appears to me that protecting the enormous wealth of the few is of utmost importance to the association.

We hear about 700 players all the time, but I wonder how many stand here with Neuvirth. After all, with contracts guaranteed and a shrinking percentage, guess who bites the 50% bullet more? Not Marian Hossa, but every unsigned 4th liner that will be taking $200,000 less from what is a much lower career earnings.


Fan opinion

Obviously fan opinion is as diverse, if not more so, than those of the three players and others described here. But I have to tell you I have been a little bit shocked to see just how clearly the pulse of the public has come down with Hamrlik on this story (if I'm to judge by comments and likes).

As a fan, I am rooting for both parties on different items, but largely from a selfish point of view as well. Now that the Habs have lots of younger players worth keeping, I like those new terms for free agency. As a fan of a team in bad tax jurisdiction, I am less fond of the idea of less money to tempt the annual 2nd line winger. It goes without saying that cancelled games eroding the Scott Gomez and Rene Bourque commitments are cast in a positive light in my mind.

I am wondering how the public perception will play this time, as the owners seem to have taken the high ground -- at least it's perceived that way my many. Will this matter at all in bargaining?


Players vs players
To some it would seem that internal friction at the NHLPA is a bad thing. But I wonder.

Consider this whole lockout in the first place. While it seems outwardly to all be about players vs. owners, the very real subplot is that of big-team owners vs. small-market owners. The big-market owners are losing revenue and actual profit, while potentially damaging a system that has been very kind to them all on the promise of building a system that is slightly better to them, but a whole lot better to small-market owners. The prize for them is percentage. Will they stand by small-market owners if that is sorted and the hardliners want to fight about age of free agency? We'll see.

The internal struggle for the players? Has it been happening? As far as I can gather, the spoils for the lower-salaried guys lie in very small pieces of the proposal. While that is nice, each game lost carries more meaning to the guy losing half a year from a three year career than it does for Sidney Crosby.



The drama  of this affair at least gave us something to follow from an NHL point of view after consecutive dry offers destined for failure were the only headlines of the day.

At the end of the day, I find I stand more with Hammer. I think that there must be a deal to get done and that hockey could be played pretty soon. And I share the impression that it's mainly one faction of a larger union that seems to be driving things here.

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