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As lockout looms, NHL ponders labor issues
Memories of lost 2004-05 season still fresh for some
Fresh off a new contract extension with the Washington Capitals, Jay Beagle is proceeding like nothing’s wrong. His plan is to get back into town later this month and prepare for the start of training camp.
But it’s a camp and season that has no guarantee of starting on time. With the collective bargaining agreement set to expire Sept. 15, the owners and NHL Players’ Association have just a month to get a deal done. If not, as commissioner Gary Bettman said last week, there will be a lockout.
“I don’t think it’s in either’s best interest to have a work stoppage of any kind,” NHL Network analyst and former executive Craig Button said. “Certainly a lost season would be a very, very negative outcome.”
Seven years removed from a work stoppage that wiped out the 2004-05 season, the conversation is different, but problems remain.
Instead of revamping the system with a salary cap, the shootout and new rules, this time it’s about economics: How big a piece of the $3.3 billion revenue pie should belong to the players?
Between now and when a deal gets done, that question and many others will be resolved. What’s uncertain now is the impact it will have on the game and fans.
“From the perspective of both sides, I think you are far beyond losing the sympathy of the fans. If you’re pitting millionaires vs. billionaires, I don’t think they really care to hear the woes of any of the sides,” former NHL defenseman Aaron Ward said. “I think from the fans’ perspective, it’s going to scar their love of the game. I don’t think it’ll kill it, but it really does leave an impact on it.”
With Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby and 21 other players attending negotiations Tuesday in Toronto, the NHLPA made its first counterproposal to an NHL plan that included longer entry-level contracts, more time before unrestricted free agency and a sizable cut in the players’ share of hockey-related revenue. Executive director Donald Fehr called it an offer that should “lead to a new CBA.”
That’s a more positive assessment of the situation than a week ago when Fehr said there still was a “meaningful gulf” between owners and players. Bridging that gulf between now and Sept. 15 could be challenging, and many believe that date will bring the start of the fourth work stoppage in the past 20 years.
“As a guy who loves the game and I feel like I’ve got a lot invested in it, my whole life, you’d like to say no and be positive and have a sunny, rosy outlook. But I think you’re looking through rose-colored glasses if you say to yourself come Sept. 15 everything’s going to be T’s crossed and I’s dotted,” said Ward, now an analyst with the Canadian sports network TSN. “I think it will happen. I think both parties learned lessons from ‘05 that you cant let this go on very long.”
Ward and Button believe everyone learned lessons from 2004-05, even though fans came back in droves and the NHL shook off the bad publicity of a lost season amid a wave of support and exploding revenues.
For guys such as Ward and Capitals associate goaltending coach Olie Kolzig, the wounds remain.
“It was awful. It was awful,” Kolzig said last month. “It’s money that I’ll never make back. That was the peak of my career. A lot of other players, it was the end of their career. It was just an ugly situation that I don’t think anybody wants to ever see happen again, no matter what sport it is.”
The clock is ticking, a year after the NBA and NFL went through labor strife. The 2004-05 lockout brought a salary cap and a 24 percent salary rollback for players; nothing that drastic is expected this time, but given that basketball and football players agreed to cut back their shares, that more than likely will be part of this CBA.
The NHLPA’s offer Tuesday included a concession in that direction. Players aren’t willing to give back as much as they did last time, but the leverage clearly belongs to owners, who will receive TV revenue checks regardless of whether there’s a full season.
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