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NHL lockout: Disclaimer avoided, because the NHL needs the NHLPA to exist

What happens when a league has bludgeoned its players' association nearly to death? Why, it must use the courts to save the union, of course.

Bruce Bennett

Bob Goodenow never would have predicted this. Neither would John Ziegler -- the league president during the 1992 players strike -- nor his ultimate successor Gary Bettman, nor the money-losing owners who saw their franchises relocate after the league lost its first to major labor battles.

But 20 years after the NHL labor wars began, 17 years after the NHL first locked out its players only to cry uncle in an embarrassing loss, the league found itself in the odd position of turning to the courts to ensure the NHLPA's survival.

You see, although the NHLPA vote on whether to authorize its board to disclaim interest was very much a negotiating tactic -- one that worked and brought the league back to the table in time -- it was also a very real threat that reflects just how far the pendulum has swung back toward the owners in what is essentially a two-decades-long war.

Last night the sides continued negotiations, a period that was kick-started by the league last Friday. With that, the league signaled its desire to keep the union from disclaiming interest by the end of Jan. 2 to kick off a legal war and jeopardize the season.

But the league's move doesn't just preserve hope for a season; it puts it in the odd position of wanting to preserve the union it is so often accused of trying to destroy.

After loathing everything the NHLPA represents from 1990 to 2005, suddenly the league owners don't want the union to break up now. They can't afford it to break up now. After years of fighting for a salary cap and now securing a drop in the player share of revenue, they have the union essentially right where they've wanted them, aside from the lesser but still important issues the two sides are kicking around now.

Why save the union from itself? Because the chaos and free market that would result from union dissolution would undo all of that and exacerbate every ailment the league is trying to fix.

Remember, at the core of the NHL's problems is that it has, and would like to keep, 30 half-way competitive franchises that have vastly different levels of health, revenue streams and profit margins. The league does this principally through a salary cap and entry-level contract restrictions that keep the payroll range narrow -- as opposed to top-heavy sports leagues like the English Premier League, where a few dominant teams outspend and outperform the rest of the table year after year.

But if the union disbands and existing contracts are invalid (as the league claims would happen), then suddenly the league is facing an open market where the Toronto Maple Leafs and their fellow richest clubs can spend more on annual player salaries than the estimated worth of other entire franchises.

(For the extreme example, Forbes' much-debated but discussion-worthy estimates suggest the $1 billion Maple Leafs take in $200 million in annual revenue, which is $70 million more than the $130-million estimated value of the St. Louis Blues.)

The feared result? Weak markets could no longer keep their cost-controlled young stars. Star free agents would flee for the highest bidder. Not only would many of the league's weakest markets lose more money, their talent would drop precipitously. The gap between haves and have-nots would widen.

Granted, the union as a whole might fear some of the consequences of disclaiming interest or decertification: It undermines much of what longtime union man Donald Fehr has stood for. And while the game's stars would rake in millions more per year than they do now, the interchangeable rank-and-file players would probably no longer draw average salaries of $2 million or more. The other rights and perks players have come to expect could suddenly be negotiated only on a per-player basis. Metaphorically, Brad Richards flies first-class, while Mike Rupp rides the bus.

The effects of filing the disclaimer of interest are dangerous, chaotic and unpredictable for both sides, to say nothing of the court proceedings that would tie things up for months. Fans can be grateful it hasn't come to that. (Yet. Always yet.)

But the fact the NHLPA considered it shows how desperate the situation had gotten, with the league pressing them to give up benefits on every significant area of the CBA. And the fact the league desperately doesn't want it to happen -- that it went to court and also restarted talks in order to prevent it -- shows just how much the NHL finally has its longtime nemesis, er, I mean "partner," right where it wants it.