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Game on, but when will the NHL drop the puck?
Players conceded early on in talks, which began in June, that they would accept a smaller percentage of revenue, and the negotiations were about how much lower.
“It was a battle,” said Winnipeg Jets defenseman Ron Hainsey, a key member of the union’s bargaining team. “Players obviously would rather not have been here, but our focus now is to give the fans whatever it is _ 48 games, 50 games _ the most exciting season we can.”
With much of the money from its $2 billion, 10-year contract with NBC back loaded toward the Stanley Cup playoffs in the spring _ and now perhaps early summer _ the league preferred to time the dispute for the start of the season in the fall. Management made its decision knowing average regular-season attendance rose from 16,534 in 2003-04 to 16,954 in 2005-06 and only seven teams experienced substantial drops.
“I’m thrilled for our fans, I’m thrilled for all of our people that work around our sport that have been hurt by this,” he said. “I’m thrilled for the players, for the owners. I’m just sorry it had to take this long. The great thing is, we don’t have to look at it for hopefully 10 years, or at worst eight, and that’s good stuff.”
Still, the lockout could wipe out perhaps $1 billion in revenue this season, given about 40 percent of the regular-season schedule won’t be played. And while the stoppage was major news in Canada, it was an afterthought for many American sports fans.
“They could have gotten here a lot sooner,” said Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based sports business consulting firm Sportscorp Ltd. “They didn’t hear a hue and cry from the fans, especially in the United States, when hockey wasn’t played. That’s very distressing. That indicates there’s a level of apathy that is troubling. In contrast, in the NFL when there was a threat of canceling a preseason weekend, the nation was up in arms.”
At downtown Detroit’s Rub BBQ Pub, manager Chris Eid said he was “ecstatic” when he heard the news. He said the settlement was a big topic of conversation among his afternoon customers.
“Everyone misses hockey,” Eid said.
Hockey’s first labor dispute was an 11-day strike in 1992 that led to 30 games being postponed. Bettman, a former NBA executive under David Stern, became the NHL commissioner in February 1993. He presided over a 103-day lockout in 1994-95 that ended with a deal on Jan. 11, then a 301-day lockout in 2004-05 that made the NHL the first major North American professional sports league to lose an entire season. The NHL obtained a salary cap in the agreement that followed that dispute and now wanted more gains.
“It was concessionary bargaining right from the beginning,” Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan said. “As the players, you kind of understand that and you accepted that. As much as you didn’t want to, we understand that the nature of professional sports has kind of changed with the last couple CBAs starting with football and basketball.”
This deal was reached with the assistance of Scot Beckenbaugh of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, a veteran of the 2004-05 NHL talks, then Major League Soccer’s negotiations in 2010, and NFL and NBA talks the following year. Beckenbaugh spent Friday walking back and forth between the league’s office and the hotel where players were staying, meeting with each side to set up the final talks.
“Fans throughout North America will have the opportunity to return to a favorite past time and thousands of working men and women and small businesses will no longer be deprived of their livelihoods,” said George Cohen, the FMCS director.
Sam Flood, NBC Sports’ executive producer, said his production team was “counting the seconds until the season begins.” NBC announcer Mike Emrick said players will have more pressure because of the shortened schedule.
“The effect of even a two-game losing streak will be four,” he said.
By Tom Fitton
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