NHL lockout: big bucks and bad blood have led to frozen ties

The mistrust between the owners and players is pushing the League to a point of no return. Sam McCaig looks at the issue.

A deserted Joe Louis Arena in Detroit; next slide, fans have been protesting outside the NHL office in New York.
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Are they dumb enough to do it again? Are they dumb enough to repeat one of the darkest chapters in the history of ice hockey?

Fans of the National Hockey League have been asking themselves these questions since September. In 2004/05, the NHL became the first North American professional sports league to lose an entire season due to a lockout.

The owners wanted a salary cap, the players did not, and a year of hockey was sacrificed. It was an embarrassing setback for the league and a devastating blow for the union.

Yet here we go again, more than three months into another stalemate and careening towards a second season-ending work stoppage in eight years.

"The NHL provided a beautiful dream to the media and fans, but in reality it's a lie," said Alex Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals forward, who is among the approximately 200 NHL players plying their trade in Europe during the lockout.

"It's showboating. The league is trying to show they are working, trying to save the season, but they offer nothing new. It's all the same, just in different words."

Ovechkin made those comments to a Russian newspaper back in October, but they remain relevant as the players' perspective on the way negotiations have unfolded.

The owners got off on the wrong foot by opening with a hard-line offer in September. The players answered with a hard-line response, hesitant to head to middle ground for fear that the league will pocket any concessions and then hold out for more.

It is an almost inconceivable situation, especially when considering that the NHL emerged from the 2004/05 lockout by delivering seven consecutive seasons of record revenues, growing from a US$2.1 billion (Dh7.71bn) business to $3.3bn last year. Any way you slice it, that is a lot of pie.

So why can't the NHL and NHL Players' Association (NHLPA) work out a way to divide it? Why are they instead tempting another pie-in-the-face fiasco, flirting with labour Armageddon when more money than ever before is on the table?

Simply put, it is because more money than ever before is on the table, and also because the wounds both sides sustained in the last lockout never fully healed. Big money and bad blood are a damning combination when it comes to signing off on a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA).

The players do not trust - or particularly like - Gary Bettman, the NHL commissioner. They believe he is a puppet of the league's most powerful owners.

The owners do not trust - or particularly like -Donald Fehr, the executive director of the NHLPA, believing he has his own agenda and is hindering progress rather than helping to get a deal done.

The players think the owners will always ask for more than the NHLPA offers; the owners think the players reap the financial rewards without taking any of the risk.While it is about money or greed, if you prefer, the funny/sad thing is, the two sides are not far apart.

An early stumbling block was how to share hockey-related revenue after the players collected 57 cents of every dollar in the last CBA. But with the NBA and NFL and their respective players' unions recently agreeing to 50-50 deals, it seemed that would be where the NHL and NHLPA would settle - and after the requisite haggling and hair-pulling, they have.

The sticking point is current contracts, with players wanting those deals honoured in full and owners seeking some sort of rollback or escrow system, like they had in the previous CBA.

Other issues include revenue sharing between the league's rich and poor teams; players' free-agency rights and contract lengths; and the duration of the new CBA deal. (Five years? Seven? 10?)

"Where we are, somebody has to have a new idea or something new to put on the table to move the process along," Bill Daly, the NHL deputy commissioner, said on December 19. "We're in a position where we felt we made some more substantial movement in the players' direction two weeks ago and I think our view is we've done as much as we can do."

Both the NHL and NHLPA insist they have done everything possible to reach a deal. Meetings large and small have been held. Spout-off-to-the-media showmanship has alternated with down-to-business agendas at secret locations, and furtive telephone conversations through back channels.

At one point, Bettman suggested a two-week moratorium on talks; a few days later, they were meeting and talking again. They brought in US federal mediators, who lasted all of two days before waving the white flag. A couple of weeks later they brought the mediators back, only to watch them wave the white flag and exit the talks again.

The latest was an owners-players showdown, without any NHL or NHLPA executives in attendance.

There were signs of progress and hope and reconciliation, then Bettman and Fehr re-entered the process and it fell apart, with both sides retreating to their entrenched positions. The see-saw of hope, which tilted to the optimistic, has dropped back down to a much more pessimistic place.

The accepted version of the 2004/05 lockout is that the owners won and the players lost, even though salaries have nearly doubled since the last stoppage. (The average NHL player's salary is approaching $2.5 million per season.)

But there is no doubt the union was broken, left in shambles, and it is believed the players want to make amends for that; meanwhile, the owners want to close the many loopholes that were exploited in the last CBA.

"I've tried to be confident through this whole thing and the fact is it seems every time we try to come close, [the owners] push away," Ryan Getzlaf, the Anaheim Ducks centre, said last week. "So, until they're willing to come close, there is nothing to be positive about. It's a sad truth, but that's a fact."

The immediate damage is bad enough. The NHL has cancelled regular-season games until January 14; slightly more than half of the 1,230 games, 625, have been wiped away. The Winter Classic outdoor game on January 1 - which had anticipated a hockey-record crowd in excess of 110,000 for a Maple Leafs-Red Wings clash in Detroit - has been lost.

The All-Star Weekend was another casualty and another blow for the beleaguered Columbus Blue Jackets, consistently the worst team in the NHL, who were to have hosted it.

"When it gets to the point where we can't play a season with integrity, with a representative schedule, then we'll be done," Bettman said after the last round of face-to-face negotiations broke down.

"If you go back in history, in 1994/95 I think we played 48 games. I can't imagine wanting to play fewer than that."

And that is where we are at. The best-case scenario is a 48-game season, and the worst-case scenario - cancelling the entire 2012/13 campaign - will almost surely come to pass if a deal is not struck by mid-January.

That could result in irreparable long-term damage to the NHL, or at least a lengthy, painful recovery period that would be measured in years, not weeks or months.

The bad feelings and personal attacks have been tough on the league, players, fans and everyone else connected to the NHL, but would pale in comparison to wiping out another season of hockey.

Already, hard-core fans are angry, casual fans are apathetic and neutral fans have tuned out completely. What will their mindset be like if the NHL cancels the season and leaves no notion of the game returning for the foreseeable future? Is there a point of no return for fans, the people who ultimately pay the owners and players?

The NHL is entrenched in Canada and a handful of US markets, but several American franchises - as many as 10 or 12 in a 30-team league - are financially vulnerable and cannot afford to lose momentum at the gate. If the season is not saved, the chances are that a franchise or four could be lost along with it.

"Hopefully, we'll get back together and negotiate out the remaining issues as soon as possible," Fehr said this week.

"It needs to be ended as soon as possible. We certainly hope we can do that. We certainly want to tell the fans we're doing everything we can to do it. Hopefully, it'll be over soon.'' If it isn't, the next steps are chilling, for fans; the only options remaining are like nuclear weapons.

For the NHLPA, dissolving the union and filing antitrust lawsuits against the league; for the NHL, cancelling the 2012/13 season with the implicit threat of prolonging the lockout into the 2013/14 campaign. If either tactic is employed, we will be staring into the abyss without any real idea how or when we'll see the NHL in action again.

"I believe in my heart, maybe because I'm such a big hockey fan, that they will be playing by January 1," said Wayne Gretzky, the last generation's superstar.

At best, The Great One's prediction might come true, just a bit late. At worst, well, if there isn't significant progress in the next couple of weeks the NHL will shift from being the only North American professional sports league to lose an entire season; they will be the first to do it twice.

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