It looks like business as usual for early September around the Washington Capitals as players trickle into town and start preparing for the season. Coach Adam Oates is excited about seeing his players and chatting with them.
“It’s getting close to hockey time,” he said.
But it might not be, given the NHL’s uncertain labor situation and the impending expiration of the collective bargaining agreement Sept. 15. And while some players shrug off the possible lockout, captain Alex Ovechkin makes no secret that he’s thinking about the consequences if the league shuts the doors.
“We know exactly what we’re going to do, and we feel exactly what’s going to happen. If it’s going to be lockout, there’s going to be lockout,” Ovechkin said Tuesday. “We’re ready for that. If we was not ready, we’d probably sign that [offer that owners] give us. But we’re ready, and we’re not gonna give up.”
That original offer was a subject of angst, as owners reportedly proposed cutting players’ share of hockey-related revenue from 57 percent in this CBA to between 43 and 46 percent for the next agreement. That essentially could amount to a 24 percent pay cut.
Ovechkin, who has nine years and $88 million left on his 13-year, $124 million contract, was not happy about the owners wanting him to give up a large chunk of that.
“I think it’s not fair for us. They still make money, they still sell tickets and they have money,” Ovechkin said. “Why do they sign us [to] long-term deals and that kind of money that when the CBA’s going to be done, they want to cut our salary? Why do they want to cut 24 [percent]? Why don’t they want to cut a hundred percent of salary?”
Without players, the NHL doesn’t have a product, so owners need them.
“If they need us, if they’re going to cut percentage of the contract and years, I don’t think lots of guys who signed American deals are going to come back and play here,” Ovechkin said. “It’s not reasonable to be here. You have to think of the future, you have to think of your family.”
Ovechkin could go the route of Pittsburgh Penguins star Evgeni Malkin and take a deal with Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League that could let him go back to the NHL when a CBA is worked out.
The captain indicated that some players might not come back if their contracts are reduced significantly.
“Well, I’m going to think about it, but I hope not. It’s something the league wants to do it for all the players,” Ovechkin said. “[Sidney] Crosby just signed, [Ryan] Suter, [Shea] Weber just signed huge deals, and they want to cut 24 percent for nothing? I don’t think it’s fair enough.”
While ownership appears to have its sights set on cutting player costs to help small-market teams, the NHLPA’s proposed solution includes more comprehensive revenue sharing. That has been communicated by executive director Donald Fehr, who seems to have the players’ confidence.
“I think he’s doing a great job,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. “I think he wants to communicate and make the league better for both partners. That’s something that the NHL doesn’t want to do, I think.”
It’s a difference in approach from both sides, and Ovechkin pointed out the owners’ desire to cut money and years from contracts as a problem while some teams are willing to give out such deals.
“Why they still sign the guys for 10 years and five years? It looks strange and looks stupid, and they right now say like, ‘We want to cut salary and we want to cut everything,’ ” he said. “And I think lots of guys, they’re just not coming back if this happens.”
The league and the players’ association do not have formal meetings scheduled this week, though Fehr has said he and his constituents are waiting to resume talks.
Call it an impasse, call it a recess, but time is running out.
“I don’t think we’re close enough to make a deal,” Ovechkin said.
Fans desperately want a deal done that could save the start of the regular season, and players recognize that the impact of a lockout extends well beyond them.
“Of course it’s going to be hard, of course it’s going to be a long time to wait, but it is what it is,” Ovechkin said. “Everybody wants to play hockey and make money. Nobody wants to play for free.”