They can’t be this stupid, this short-sighted, this selfish, this greedy. Hockey fans are wondering that as an NHL lockout could cancel an entire season for the second time in nine years.
Already 326 games have been wiped out, and the fact is everything in 2012-13 could be lost.
“It has the same feeling as seven, eight years ago. [Owners] try the same system that they did that time, exactly the same way than that time,” Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen said. “It seems like they have this attitude that they’re going to do exactly what they did eight years ago.”
Before the lockout began Sept. 15, the prevailing opinion was that even if games were missed, this wouldn’t be like 2004-05. Ex-Washington Capitals right wing Mike Knuble in late August called it highly unlikely because “that would be just absolutely crazy.”
Yet logic is not in charge. It might be worth considering that, even if crazy, losing this season is becoming a distinct possibility.
“I wasn’t there in ‘04 and ‘05. There’s a lot of things that you can look at that differentiate the two situations,” Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. “But at the end of the day, it’s the same ownership group, and it’s the same commissioner. You can’t rule that out.”
During the past few months of negotiations, it has proved hard to rule anything out.
The NHL’s first offer included lowering the players’ share of hockey-related revenue from 57 percent at the end of the last collective bargaining agreement to about 43 percent, which amounts to a 24 percent pay cut. And the NHL Players’ Association’s last foray into negotiating included three proposals that were rejected within 15 minutes.
Then, last week, the November schedule was canceled. Once time passed to complete an 82-game season, the league pulled its most recent offer off the table. Commissioner Gary Bettman said at that time that making a deal “may get more difficult.”
Players’ already bitter feelings toward the owners’ process worsened.
“As has been proven over time, they’re just on a timeline and they’re waiting to see how much they can squeeze us for,” Toews said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next week or so, but as players, we’ve stood up, we’ve stood together this whole time. We’ve worked very hard at trying to negotiate. That’s as much as we can do at this point.”
Players have noted time and again their desire to play, first under the old CBA while talks continued and then again last week as several pointed out that if a deal is reached sooner rather than later, those canceled November games could be put back on the schedule.
That’s not likely to happen because the sides haven’t even taken part in formal negotiations since Oct. 18. Still, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr doesn’t want to talk yet about an entire season going by the wayside.
“I hope that’s premature discussion, and we certainly hope it isn’t true,” Fehr said. “As a personal matter, I don’t see any reason for it. But I didn’t see a reason to begin to talk about a lockout last January. And I didn’t see a reason to make a proposal off the bat for another 24 percent in salary reductions or any of the rest of it.”
But the players and owners are seemingly stalled. The Winter Classic could be canceled Thursday, according to reports, which would take away the NHL’s signature regular-season event.
Fehr said anyone could argue that NHL has been on a similar path as the NBA, but basketball ensured the resumption of the season in time for Christmas Day a year ago.
“Right now it doesn’t look too good,” Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane said of losing this season. “Hopefully, they can put something together and try to get a season in.”
Even in hopes that the sides could bridge the gap and get a deal done, Timonen echoed Toews and Kane’s sentiment that “it doesn’t look very good” right now that there will be a season at all.
But not every player has that sense of doom, at least yet.
“My stance on it is that I’m trying to remain highly, highly optimistic right now,” Anaheim Ducks forward Bobby Ryan said. “And in the short period of time. It’s so hard to speak for it because things can change in a day.”
They can have a great meeting and then all of a sudden the optimism comes back and it’s strong.”
If this impasse lasts long enough to get the players and owners there, it wouldn’t be unfamiliar territory. But after the last lockout, the “new NHL” with Sidney Crosby, the shootout and rules to improve the game enticed fans to come back.
It stands to reason that might not happen this time around.
“When you cancel a whole month of games, it’s not a good sign for us, it’s not a good sign for the fans,” Timonen said. “I hope they have a big say and that they put a lot of pressure on us and the owners, saying that, ‘OK, we’re not coming to games if this is not done by whenever.’ … As a fan I would start looking for something else.”
Fehr and players are quick to point out that the lockout itself should have been a last resort instead of a negotiating tactic. The same goes for canceling games.
But an entire season would be another nuclear winter for the sport.
“I hope that it’s a worst-case scenario,” Ryan said. “And I highly hope we don’t get there.”