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Let me start out by saying I’m a fairly optimistic person. For the most part, I try to find the positive out of every scenario before thinking of any bad outcomes. I wish I could have that attitude when I’m asked by someone if I think there will be an NHL hockey season this year.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, the NHL locked out its players on September 16th after both sides failed to come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement. Training camps and the preseason schedule have been cancelled, and the first two weeks of the regular season have been postponed. This scenario screams out scenes of 2004 when the NHL became the first North American pro sports league to lose an entire season due to a labor dispute.
Just for a second, let me at least attempt to be optimistic. The NHL and the NHL Players Association have been talking and have kept in regular contact this time around. In 2004, the two sides went 3 months without a word from each other. So, at least they’re talking. Also, the 4 big players in the negotiations (Commissioner Gary Bettman, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, Don Fehr & Steve Fehr) have met the past couple days and are planning to meet Wednesday, apart from the main negotiating table. Maybe they’re talking about the core issue that surrounds the new CBA; money. Maybe the players will do what’s best for the game, and decide to take a pay cut to keep the league’s integrity in tact (doubtful). That’s about as optimistic as I can be at the current time, unfortunately.
Without a doubt, the bad outweighs the good. Even though the two sides have been talking to each other, they’re avoiding the big issues and failing to submit new proposals to each other. Every formal meeting has been regarding little things that usually get talked about when the big things have been agreed upon, such as player safety, reimbursements, travel, health, etc. They NEED to sit down and focus their energy on the economic front, or this deal will never get done. Having said that, you have to know who exactly leads the two sides. Commissioner Bettman will do almost anything to get his way. We saw this back in ’04 when he cancelled the season without hesitation, and we’re seeing it again this time around when he came out and said the league would not allow games to go on during negotiations. He’s not one to back down, even if he’s one of the most hated men in hockey. The 30 league owners love him because they can hide under his smirky, greedy smile. Donald Fehr is also not one to back down from an issue. He lead the MLB players in the ’94-’95 strike. The World Series was cancelled that year. Both sides have leaders with massive egos. Who will crack first? Can they compromise?
Another reason to expect a lengthy lockout is the amount of NHLers signing to play overseas. Leagues in Europe are flourishing with NHL players signing there to avoid missing a paycheck. Also, Don Fehr came out the other day and said the longer the lockout lasts, the less happy the players will be playing under a salary cap. If this happens, and the players association puts the salary cap back on the table, I would expect a lockout that could cancel this season, as well as the following season.
If the NHL is to fit a season in, they need to ramp up negotiating the core economic issues and have a deal in place by the end of October. As of now, the postponed regular season games can still be made up, and if a deal is struck soon we can expect to see an 82-game regular season. However, if November 1st comes around and there is still no deal, regular season games will be lost, and the cancellation of the Winter Classic and All-Star Weekend will most likely follow that same week. Once you get into November, the season will be on life support, and most analysts see US Thanksgiving as a date of which we’ll know if the entire year will be scrapped or not. (I feel for Columbus who was expected to host this years All-Star Weekend, because there will be no All-Star Weekend in 2014 due to the Sochi Olympics).
I get asked daily at the local hockey shop I work at if I think there will be a season. I’d be lying to the customers if i said I think there will be one. Every fan has their opinion, but sadly they don’t have a voice in this fight. Their voice in this fight comes after an agreement comes between the NHL & its players. They can decide to spend well earned money elsewhere. Will the fans who have helped grow the game the past 10 years come back? The real impact of this lockout will occur after it’s all over. For now, enjoy the Major League Baseball postseason, and the opening weeks of college/NFL football, and college hockey. There are many sporting events that deserve our attention that aren’t the NHL based. I hope I’m wrong, and all of this comes to an end tomorrow, but I’m also trying to be realistic.
I’ll leave you with this alarming and scary stat: Each lockout in NHL history has gone on longer than the previous one (10 day strike in 1992, 103 day lockout in 1994, and a 311 day lockout in 2004 when the season was cancelled). When does this one end? And is this the end of the NHL as we know it?
My instincts say we’ll lose the whole year but we’ve still got a month or two to salvage a Dec or Jan start up, so we’ll see. I suspect we’ll see our first real movement from either side in coming week but whether that creates legit traction for talks, who knows? At this point, I don’t doubt either side’s resolve. That may be the problem. Owners think players will cave. Players think owners will cave. I think, like last time, we’ll lose the season before anyone blinks. I’m dismayed that the NHL is insistent on getting such a significant and immediate claw back (57 to 50%). Too much, too soon. But it’s equally discouraging that we are cancelling games and players are still stuck on notion of not taking any tangible dollar reduction. Maybe it’s posturing to get best deal possible at right time but if players insist on no tangible reduction to actual $, turn out the lights. I don’t doubt players’ resolve, but I am surprised at how many players think Bettman and/or owners will blink. Maybe they will, but…of all the things I’ve learned in 30+ yrs covering this game, Bettman, Jeremy Jacobs and Ed Snider don’t strike me as bluffers. And last time I checked, Don Fehr isn’t a guy who shies away from a fight. So that pretty much brings us to where we are. Fans, as angry as they are, have no voice in this dispute, at this moment. But once dispute is over, they have the only voice that matters. I’m not saying you shouldn’t voice frustration/anger now, I’m saying the only real impact you have is by not spending your $$$. Hey, I could be completely wrong. These things tend to take on a life of their own. And I do anticipate some movement in the coming week. But Fehr wasn’t hired to roll over and Bettman’s history suggests he doesn’t play bluff poker, so…biggest fear, and maybe this why it won’t last all season, is if it goes whole season, prospects of 2nd season being affected are high. If season is lost, I can see NHLPA putting salary cap back on table. Then we have a fight that makes this one look like Boy Scout Jamboree.”
- Bob McKenzie of TSN