The NHLPA Needs Leverage, Another Rebel League Is Needed

Image by Pierre Duhem, public domain

Conventional wisdom (or what passes for it) says that the players have no leverage in the ongoing lockout. The players caved during the last lockout, giving the owners everything they wanted and there's no reason for the owners to let go of the throttle now. The players will eventually cave to the owners' demands, likely some time in December, after the owners throw them a meaningless concession in their negotiations.

While the players did cave in the last round of negotiations, they don't have to this time. The league already has a revenue-based salary cap, still maintains control of players for seven years, tightly controls revenues, doesn't pay additional base dollars for playoff games, and forces players into league control at age 18. The only thing the players have left is guaranteed contracts, though the buyout clauses of the last CBA chewed into those.

The problem for the players, of course, is centered around the lack of competitive employment options. No other league in the world pays as much as the NHL, and the league that comes the closest, the KHL, forces Canadian and American players to move 5,000 miles away from home for less money.

With everything seemingly tilted to the owners' favor, is there anything the players can do to regain some of their lost leverage?

The answer, of course, is a second, competing, North American league similar to the long-dead WHA. While the players don't have Dennis Murphy and Gary Davidson to jumpstart a second league for them, they do have some unique individuals who might be interested in going against the establishment, individuals who might make up the core of a second Rebel League.

It's a tough sell, of course. Any prospective owner comes into the situation knowing that the players have every intention of using them for leverage, and that alone is going to chase off a significant portion of the owner's pool. But are there enough rebels left that would forge ahead anyway? If they were able find 10-15 owners willing to gamble, could they make a second league strong enough, competitive enough, and stable enough to compete with the NHL? The WHA was formed with 12 teams balanced throughout the continent. Miami, New England, New York, and Ontario in the east, Chicago, Dayton, and St Paul in the middle, and Calgary, Edmonton, Los Angeles, San Fransisco, and Winnipeg in the west. But initial plan lacked stability and by the time the inagural season of the WHA began, the franchise makeup had shifted dramatically:

East West
Cleveland Alberta
New England Chicago
New York Houston
Ottawa Los Angeles
Philadelphia Minnesota
Quebec Winnipeg

The dramatic shift continued throughout the history of the WHA, and the league died and inglorious death in 1979 with just six teams remaining:

League
Edmonton
Quebec
Winnipeg
New England
Cincinnati
Birmingham

The same fait probably awaits a potential Rebel League, part 2. Or does it? If men like Jim Balsille, Marcel Aubut, Mark Cuban, and Bill Gallacher were willing to give this a go, would the league have lasting effects on the NHL? Would it return some of the balance to the NHL labor negotiations? Would the league last?

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