The National Hockey League (NHL) and the National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA) will get back to the bargaining table tomorrow afternoon, after having last week’s negotiations fall apart despite the help of U.S Federal Mediators. What’s different this time will be the presence of a few different owners, and without NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Head Don Fehr. Bettman proposed a select group of owners meet with a small group of players in order to help jump-start the stalled talks.
In the meeting from the owners side will be Ronald Burkle of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Mark Chipman of the Winnipeg Jets, Jeff Vinik of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Murray Edwards of the Calgary Flames, Larry Tanenbaum of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Jeremy Jacobs of the Boston Bruins. Jacobs is head of the NHL Executive Committee and seems to have had the biggest influence on the NHL’s decision to keep the players from taking the ice this season. He isn’t new to CBA negotiations either, as he was a big part of the last lockout in 2004-05 when the salary cap was the big issue.
We don’t know yet who from the players side will take part in this round of talks, but stars Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews are likely to take part. Having new voices in the bargaining room is never a bad thing, but fans who think this will all of a sudden solve the issues between the two sides would be setting themselves up for disappointment. This is purely meant to help get some steam behind negotiations.
The timing of this meeting is a bit interesting, since the Board of Governors (fancy name for the owners) have meetings scheduled for this coming Wednesday, December 5th. It’s clear not all the owners are on the same page. But it would be foolish to think that enough of them would walk up to Gary Bettman and declare the end of the lockout.
I think the next week to 10 days is absolutely critical if we’re to see NHL players on the ice this season. I don’t think we’ve seen the best offer from the NHL (even though they said they won’t move any more), and I don’t think we’ve seen the players bend as much as they’re willing to.
As far as a date to officially cancel the 2012-13 NHL season, I think we’re a month to 6 weeks from that decision. If games were to start in mid-January like they did in the ’94-’95 lockout, that would leave room for about 40-45 games. All games would be divisional or in-conference and the season would likely be extended until the end of April. The Board of Governors will no doubt discuss this as well as the overall timetable when they meet on Wednesday. In 2004-05, the League cancelled the season on February 16th. They will not wait that long to cancel the season this time around.
Should this set of talks go nowhere, we may be hearing a lot more about the possibility of the NHLPA decertifiying. I don’t want to get ahead of the talks, but if this should be the case, it would almost guarantee the loss of the NHL season. The players most likely wouldn’t decertify until sometime in January when the season appears to be lost anyways. The NHLPA would essentially cease to exist. Don Fehr would no longer represent the players as their union leader and the players would take the fight from negotiating tables to a court room to see if the lockout is illegal. If the judge sides with the players, the NHL would have to make a good enough offer to get the players back on the ice right away. If the judge sides with the league, it’s going to get very ugly and nobody really knows what the outcome would be. Again, we’re a few weeks or maybe a month or 2 from that step, but it is a very real option the players and Don Fehr have in their back pocket.
I’ve been pessimistic from the very beginning about the prospect of even having an NHL season. The latest news doesn’t give me hope that the two sides are any closer to getting a deal done. The players are getting more frustrated as each day passes, and fans are getting more and more irritated and finding other ways to spend their money. I don’t blame the fans one bit. I’m one of the most die-hard hockey fans I know, but whenever the league does start back up, I don’t see myself going to a game for at least a year. Of course I’ll watch on TV, and support the Detroit Red Wings from a bar stool or couch, but paying $25 for a nosebleed seat and $8 for a beer when all each side cares about is money, isn’t why I’m a hockey fan.
The league is doing irreparable damage to its image and it will take years to recover. It’s going to take a lot more than just some blue paint on the ice saying “Thank You Fans”. I don’t know what it’s going to take, and I don’t know any other possible ways to bridge the gap between the owners & players. Perhaps that’s the scariest thing about this lockout. It’s all very unknown. All unchartered waters. We’ll find out in the coming weeks if the NHL will sink or swim.