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INDEPTH: NHL LABOUR STRIFE › FLASHBACK: 1992 & 1994
We've been here before Many of the issues on the table today are rehashes of the league's major labour-management conflicts of the '90s.



NHLPA boss Bob Goodenow, in just his first year on the job, led the players on a 10-day strike. It was the first-ever strike in league history.

Players walked off the job on April 1. They returned April 11 after the two sides agreed on a two-year contract.

The strike didn't cost the NHL any games. The 30 games that were supposed to be played during the strike were re-scheduled.

At the crux of the conflict was the players' demand to have full control of the marketing rights to their images. This included the use of player pictures on trading cards, posters and other merchandise.

Wayne Gretzky went toe-to-toe with league president John Ziegler over the trading-card issue.

Money, as one would expect, was also a key topic of debate. Even back then owners were saying revenues could not keep up with player salaries. In April 1992, Maclean's magazine reported the NHL would lose $50 million in 1992-1993.

According to the NHLPA, approximately $363 million was spent on players' salaries in 1992-1993. NHL team revenues were $400 million.

Early in the strike, Ziegler admitted that a big reason why player salaries were escalating was owners' desire to win and their willingness to pay big money for top players. Ziegler said the owners needed protection from themselves.

Arbitration, free agency, waivers, pension funding was also on the agenda.

The players had asked for a three-year contract, retroactive to the expiry of their contract in September 1991. They settled for a two-year deal.

In return for the concession, players received the marketing rights they wanted.

The playoff money fund for players rose from $3.2 million to $7.5 million, and negotiators worked out a compromise on disability benefits.

Four games were added to the regular schedule to pay for increased league costs.


After playing the 1993-94 season without a collective bargaining agreement, many pundits were predicting that training camps for the 1994-95 campaign would not open.

While players were willing to play the season as negotiations on a new CBA continued, Bettman was determined to resolve the situation before the season started rather than having players threaten to walk off the job before the playoffs started in the spring.

To the surprise of many, NHL camps did open on Sept. 1, but the season never started. On Oct. 1, the league's owners locked out the NHL's 600 players.

The lockout ended on Jan 11, 1995, after 104 days, and games resumed Jan. 20. A total of 468 games were lost.

At several points during the lockout both sides were close to a deal, but things fell apart each time. The biggest stumbling block was the salary cap – the owners wanted a cap, the players were adamantly against it.

Nineteen-point rollbacks

Stalled negotiations became contentious when Bettman implemented a series of sanctions that clawed back many rights from the players.

Bettman's 19-point rollbacks eliminated arbitration, eliminated per diems, stipulated that players had to pay their own medical insurance, life insurance and travel expenses to training camp.

The sanctions were designed to save the league between $20 and $40 million.

Many felt the rollbacks were part of Bettman's plan to speed up the negotiations' pace and progress. Obviously, the sanctions left a bitter taste in the players' mouths.

Salary Cap / Luxury Tax / Payroll Tax

Going into the negotiations, both the owners and the players agreed they needed to find a way to help small-market teams. However, they differed widely on how to achieve this. It would turn out to be the most contentious issue of the negotiations.

The league wanted to tie salaries to revenues to subsidize the operations of weaker clubs. The most common version presented by the NHL was a sliding tax system that would fine teams who exceeded the league average payroll – thought to be about $15 million at the time. The money collected would be distributed to cash-strapped clubs.

The NHLPA was steadfastly opposed to the idea, arguing the tax was in fact a salary cap. They claimed the NHL's proposed tax system would artificially keep players' salaries down because owners would be reluctant to pay fair salaries for fear of being taxed.

The NHLPA felt that the NHL could help small markets through better management of their franchises and revenue sharing among the clubs. Instead of a salary cap, the union proposed the five per cent solution.

The five per cent solution

This was the players' proposal for revenue sharing. They kept it on the table for many weeks. It was a proposed payroll and gate receipt tax of five per cent on the league's top 16 teams.

The NHLPA also proposed a graduated tax rate for the richest 16 teams that ranged from seven per cent for the top four teams to one per cent for the bottom four teams. Projections estimated that it would raise $35 million for small market teams.

The NHL rejected this alternate to their salary cap and said that it did not address the issue of runaway salaries.

Free Agency

Another major issue was how to address free agency. Owners wanted to limit free agency to slow escalating player salaries.

The union wanted a three-tier system of free agency that limited movement early in a player's career but enhanced movement in the later stages.

Owners initially suggested that players who were 28 years old with 10 years of pro service or eight years NHL service would be eligible for unrestricted, or Group III, free agency. Owners introduced a franchise-player clause that would allow each team to designate one player per year for which it would have the right to match contract offers from other teams.

The union vehemently opposed the franchise-player clause saying it essentially was restricting unrestricted free agents. With the right to match competing offers, a team could prevent a player from playing where he wanted to.

Owners also wanted changes in the restricted free agents category. Also known as Group II free agents, these players were less than 28 years old. The owners wanted to reduce the draft pick compensation for these players. They also wanted teams to retain the right to match offers from other teams' for these players.

Salary Arbitration

Like many of the other issues during the negotiations, the two sides' views on salary arbitration were constantly evolving.

Owners wanted to eliminate or reduce arbitration because they said it was inflationary. At one point they wanted to limit it to players with eight years of NHL service. Eventually, they wanted only Group II free agents to qualify for arbitration and they wanted it to be nonbinding on the club.

The union wanted all players to remain eligible for arbitration and were opposed to the to a system of nonbinding arbitration. The saw arbitration as way to get fair market salaries and they wanted to keep it. They would have preferred a system in which the arbitrator chooses either the players' or the owners' offer.

Rookie Salary Cap

The NHL, after seeing teams dole out big contracts to unproven rookies, decided it wanted to put a cap on entry-level salaries. Initially, the league wanted the amount a team could spend on rookies to be capped at about $250,000. They also wanted to cap signing bonuses.

The union opposed any sort of rookie cap, saying would have trickle-down effect. The union argued limits placed on how much a player makes at the start of his would impact later contracts.

Other Issues

Other issues on the table included the length of the entry draft, playoff salaries, team roster sizes and player promotional obligations.

After a four-month lockout, the NHL and the NHLPA agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement on Jan. 11, 1995.

One of the first issues players and owners came to a resolution on was a rookie salary cap.

Cynics said that as the strike wore on, the players' resistance on this issue softened because it did not really affect the vast majority of the players. Almost all the players in the union had played at least one season and were no longer rookies. The rookie cap affected only new players coming into the NHL.

All rookie contracts would be two-way, which meant if the player was sent down to the minors he would get paid a lower minor-league salary rather then an NHL rate.

The players didn't acquiesce to the owners' demand for an overall salary cap or a luxury tax. After months of fruitless negotiations, the NHL, to the chagrin of hardline owners, took the tax off the table and a deal fell into place.

Instead players and owners agreed on a complex system that put greater limits on free agency and on how soon a player could become an unrestricted free agent.

Salary arbitration, a process most NHL managers dread, was also altered. Under the terms of the new deal, players would have fewer rights and the arbitrator rulings would be nonbinding, which meant teams who disagreed with the ruling could walk away.

At the time owners were very happy with the players' concessions. The NHL's brain trust felt that limiting how much a player could earn in his first few years and preventing him from becoming an unrestricted free agent until after he was 31 years old would provide a sufficient drag on escalating salaries.

In turn, lower costs for players would limit the advantage large-market, deep-pocketed teams had over small-market, cash-strapped clubs. Other than that, nothing concrete was done to specifically address the needs of small-market teams.

Other highlights included:

  • The entry draft would consist of nine rounds, plus compensatory draft selection awarded to teams losing unrestricted free agents.
  • The elimination of Group I free agency, a big contributor to salary escalation.
  • The schedule was reduced from 84 to 82 games by eliminating games in non-NHL cities. For example, Halifax had some NHL games the previous year.
  • Game rosters were set at 20: 18 skaters and two goalies.







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