The predictable path of the NHL lockout

Bruce Bennett - Getty Images

The rhetoric doesn't sound good, but there may be a glimmer of hope for the 2012-13 NHL season, after all.

The National Hockey League finally raised the stakes in its labor dispute with the players, officially wiping 82 regular-season games - including 7 Capitals games - off the schedule Thursday afternoon. The move ups the ante for the players, as the first paychecks of the season are taken away with the cancellation.

So far through nearly three weeks of the lockout, there has been little movement in negotiations, and as a result, a lot of pessimism and rhetoric being thrown about by both sides as the war of words in the media - and on Twitter - has heated up.

"The decision to cancel the first two weeks of the NHL season is the unilateral choice of the NHL owners," NHLPA Executive Director Don Fehr wrote in a statement released to the press shortly after the league's announcement. "If the owners truly cared about the game and the fans, they would lift the lockout and allow the season to begin on time while negotiations continue.

"A lockout should be the last resort in bargaining, not the strategy of first resort. For nearly 20 years, the owners have elected to lock-out the players in an effort to secure massive concessions. Nevertheless, the players remain committed to playing hockey while the parties work to reach a deal that is fair for both sides. We hope we will soon have a willing negotiating partner."

In response, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly shot back with some strong words of his own.

"We were extremely disappointed to have to make today's announcement," Daly wrote. "The game deserves better, the fans deserve better and the people who derive income from their connection to the NHL deserve better.

"We remain committed to doing everything in our power to forge an agreement that is fair to the players, fair to the teams and good for our fans.

"This is not about 'winning' or 'losing' a negotiation. This is about finding a solution that preserves the long-term health and stability of the League and the game.

"We are committed to getting this done."

As I've written in this space before, it has seemed like both sides had a strategy - dating back to before the lockout officially began Sept. 15 - to try and wait each other out and allow the stakes to be raised for both sides. Thursday's announcement was significant since regular-season games not only cost the owners ticket revenue for a handful of home games, but also make up the first big chunk out of the players' paychecks and raises the NHLPA's stakes in the equation.

While the players do get an escrow payment on Oct. 15 roughly equivalent to the first check lost, it still is money that they - with careers that usually are only a few seasons - will never get back. And with the continuing lack of talks, the next one won't be replaced at all. And, while an estimated quarter of the league is in Europe or the AHL during the dispute and earning some money, a large portion of the players will be without significant income.

The two sides have shown little interest in settling the dispute in recent weeks, and more concerned with posturing and rhetoric than actually looking for a fair deal than formulating proposals. And both are seemingly being patient as the stakes are raised, which not only threatens the players' paychecks and owners' revenue, but also the fans' and sponsors' patience to support the league.

For those who have followed the other labor disputes of the last year, brinksmanship is the method du jour of getting a settlement out of their negotiating partner. The NFL lockout lasted months until actual games were threatened by the dispute, but the sides settled after losing one exhibition game. The NBA went even further, cancelling nearly two months of the regular season before coming to a settlement on Thanksgiving weekend to begin play on their first national television date, Christmas Day, with a 66-game schedule.

Now, the NHL lockout is trekking down a similar path. The owners are content seemingly to gamble on losing some of the lower-revenue regular-season games in October for a bigger piece of the overall revenue pie. The players are banking on the owners to look to avoid a protracted lockout that would damage a business whose revenue has grown from $2.2 billion in 2005-06 to $3.3 billion last season and has had a strong growth track since the league's last lockout.

With regular season games coming off the board, the big question now becomes what the eventual endgame is.

The natural window of settlement appears to be between Thanksgiving Day and New Year's Day, with two major NHL endeavors on tap: the filming of HBO's "24/7" series and the ensuing 2013 Winter Classic - an event that will generate nearly as much money for the league as an entire season of Phoenix Coyotes' receipts - as well as the first NBC television date of the season, a Black Friday matinee between the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers.

In the wake of Thursday's announcement, there was a suggestion from Toronto's Fan 590 reporter Howard Berger that the league would only conduct two more two-week cancellations before the league would pull the plug on the entire year. Plotting that on the calendar, if Berger's theory comes to pass, the league would only cancel games until November 21 - two days before that national television date, the day before Thanksgiving.

In the 1994-95 NHL lockout, the two sides settled on Jan. 11 - nearly two months after Thanksgiving - and played a truncated 48-game schedule limited to games against conference opponents. In 2004, as the two sides looked to salvage the season in February, there was reportedly a 36-game schedule on the table in case there was a settlement.

So, in this case, if the league threatens to pull the plug on the season before the Thanksgiving turkey is even served, then there clearly appears to be a planned endgame to this to salvage a roughly 60-game schedule.

In the final days of the NBA lockout, the talk was that the entire 2011-12 season would be scrapped despite being less than a month into the regular-season's schedule. In the wee hours of the holiday weekend, the two sides agreed on how to divide up the revenue pie - not unlike the structure of the NHL's current dispute.

Should Thanksgiving games become the threatened "drop-dead" date for the entire NHL season - despite the league having the logistics and history to start a season well after that point - that could actually be welcome news for fans, since the league would become serious about hammering out a settlement.

For a labor dispute that has left many experts bewildered and shaking their heads over threatening to shred the increasing revenue of a growing league, it would absolutely defy logic to cancel a second season in nine years. With the major sticking point not being salary structure - like in 1994 or 2004 - but simply revenue, and a fan base that was largely caught unprepared for a lengthy dispute - unlike 2004 - it would likely damage the sport to a much greater extent than the last lockout.

One key point to remember in labor talks is that the rhetoric is designed to be pointed, as both sides want the other side to buy into being committed to what they are standing for. And with the talk the last three weeks being increasingly heated, a lot of the actual dispute is lost in the rhetoric and propaganda.

Neither Gary Bettman or Donald Fehr can be considered anything but shrewd negotiators.

Bettman used the last lockout to get the salary cap, but that was when the league locked its doors with the resolve to lose an entire year to get it. This time, despite the rhetoric, it's unlikely they'd be willing to lose a season to gain a few percentage points on a shrunken revenue pie.

For Fehr, he was brought in to give the union some legitimacy after it was routed in the last lockout. But he also is aware that the last NHLPA boss to lose a season's worth of incomes - Bob Goodenow - was quickly shown the door.

It's clear that another year lost would be catastrophic for both the league and its players. And so should the league actually begin to draw a line in the sand for what this year's "drop-dead" line in the sand, it actually could mark the beginning of the end of the labor dispute. And if it's following the path of last year's NBA dispute, it would be heading for a predictable ending.

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