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As lockout looms, NHL ponders labor issues

Memories of lost 2004-05 season still fresh for some

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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.

"It's trying to come to an understanding, the players trying to come to an understanding amongst themselves that says, 'OK, what's palatable for us?' Not, 'What are we willing to accept as our bottom line?''' Button said. "It's what's palatable that creates a value proposition where they feel valued and they can get invested in growing the game."

Given the game's growth in the past seven years, Ward said players begin to wonder, "OK, why are we doing this?"

One issue is the gap between big-market teams such as the Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers and small-market teams such as the Phoenix Coyotes and Nashville Predators. Coming out of the lockout in 2005-06, the salary cap was set at $39 million; in 2011-12, the salary floor (or minimum teams had to spend on players) was $48.3 million.

"The problem with this CBA, it is a problem, is that the higher-revenue teams, because they've generated so much revenue because of their market advantage, it's brought up the lower markets to a spending level that they just see as untenable," Button said. "That has to be reconciled in one way, shape, or form."

That could be by way of a more extensive revenue-sharing program, which was also part of the NHLPA's offer. Whether owners are able to agree on sharing money is a problem that needs to be addressed internally, and then it becomes a collective bargaining issue.

"Regardless of where you're at, the owners don't want to take all the burden and the players don't want to take all the burden," Button said. "So what solution is there to come to a satisfactory resolution where that can be shared? And at the same time create a partnership where you're both working to expand revenues."

Ward heard the word "partnership" plenty coming out of the 2004-05 lockout and said "it's funny now seven years down the road that the P-word's now gone." There isn't the same kind of bracing for an inevitable lockout that there was eight years ago this summer, but players who went through it have an idea what to expect if a deal isn't reached.

In the past couple of months, players haven't wanted to dwell on the possibility of a lockout. Some, including recently acquired Caps center Mike Ribeiro, conceded to being informed but not that involved. They want to focus on getting ready for the season.

But unless the two sides make major headway over the next 30 days, it'll become more about what the length of a lockout does in terms of damage to the league.

"If it does go down that path, the longer it goes, you're losing momentum," Button said. "You don't want to lose that momentum because when you lose momentum, you've got to work to regain that momentum. It's fine if there's an economic system that comes into place and you say, 'Hey, listen, this was necessary.' But if you're going to end up at the same place in November, and this is both parties, if you're going to end up at the same place on Nov. 15 that you could've been at on Oct. 1, get there on Oct. 1."

Ward said it's hard to be objective given that it hasn't been long since the last lockout sapped him and colleagues of a full year of their careers. The scars were there, he said, every time he picked up a paycheck and saw the money that was lost.

But a few remain hopeful because of what happened in 2004-05, remembering how bad it can get if a deal isn't worked out early.

"Maybe I'm the dummy, but I remain optimistic that there's too much that's been gained over the last seven years to have any type of work stoppage that prevents the league from having a full season. Anything less than that I'd be disappointed in," Button said. "I guess [owners] can sit here and pound your chest and say, 'We have leverage and we'll show you.' If it gets to that, you know what, I only say this: There's no winners at the end of it."

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