NHL Lockout 2012: For owners and players, the time's come to talk

Bruce Bennett - Getty Images

While the early days of the NHL lockout have been largely unproductive and filled with bravado, it's about time for both sides to get serious or face serious consequences.

If you haven't paid attention to the NHL labor negotiations since the lockout officially started on Sept. 16, you haven't missed much. Since the dispute officially began nearly two weeks ago, there hasn't been a single negotiating session between the two sides.

That's expected to change Friday, when the two sides will hold a scheduled meeting. They'll only be looking to settle some of the Collective Bargaining Agreement's non-core economic issues, but that still beats the prior lack of dialogue between the two sides.

What has taken place in the vacuum of talks is the usual brinksmanship and hyperbole that can be expected between the two sides.

Some owners quickly decided to announce cuts in team personnel just days after the lockout began - and before much actual income was lost. The Red Wings - one of the league's high-revenue clubs - were hit with a $250,000 fine for an interview in which a team official compared the players to livestock.

Players - at least the high-end ones - have begun to find work in Europe, opting to keep skating in a competitive situation while some others ominously discuss another lost season for the league.

One thing that's important to remember in labor talks is that an impression of solidarity is deemed highly important, not only to get out the message, but also to give the other side the impression that their side won't blink.

The NHL owners are under pain of heavy fines not to discuss the situation, in part to let the negotiators - led by Gary Bettman - do their jobs, but also to not reveal the disparity between high-revenue clubs that are losing money in a protracted dispute and the lesser-revenue clubs who do not take as much of a financial hit by not playing games.

While the players have no edict not to discuss the situation, NHLPA head Don Fehr has crafted a public relations strategy to present a unified front. But while some of the league's top stars can find temporary homes in Europe, the larger portion of the NHLPA's 600-plus locked out players will sit idle, waiting for a new deal to be struck.

After the initial show of strength on both sides, which was unaffected by the NHL cancelling the remainder of the 2012-13 preseason schedule Thursday, things will become serious in the next week or so when regular-season games are taken off the board, because the financial stakes go up for both sides.

One critical point is this: despite missing the opening of training camp and the cancellation of the first week of preseason, the players haven't lost much money at all to this point in this dispute.

Players don't get their regular pay until the regular season starts, unless they have a negotiated bonus that pays them before the season. The bulk of the players are missing out on the small stipend they get during training camp, but for the most part, players that are going overseas now actually will be supplementing their income - at least temporarily, since they wouldn't draw an NHL paycheck until October.

Most players will also get an escrow check on Oct. 15 for money withheld under the last CBA, reportedly in the neighborhood of 8 percent of last year's salary. That will take some of the sting out of not getting an NHL paycheck that month, since it roughly translates to the check players would have gotten for the first 6 games of the season - approximately two weeks' worth.

But, if the labor dispute drags on much longer past the scheduled start of the NHL season, players - most of whom won't be able to find a spot in Europe - will begin to feel the pressure of lost income they may never get back.

The owners, on the other hand, have taken the first financial hit by losing preseason games which are largely profitable since the players are paid minimally this time of year, although it's likely that some of those lost dates - and cash - will be replaced with rescheduled contests once the CBA is settled.

The NBA played a limited exhibition schedule to tune up for the 2011-12 season once they settled their labor dispute last November. Without any team holding camp yet, it's likely that there would be at least a handful of games before the season starts; not only to get players ready, but also to recoup a bit of that lost income for the owners.

Realistically, a lost year would be catastrophic for both sides.

For players, with a limited career lifespan, whatever gains they would obtain to preserve a higher percentage of league revenue would be wiped out with the loss of a season's pay - not to mention that percentage would be greatly reduced due to lost revenues by the league, something that may not return to 2011-12 levels until they hang up their skates.

For the owners, while they could sustain the immediate financial hit of another year lost, the damage to franchise values and the lost sponsors and ticket sales likely would negate what they could gain extracting an extra percentage point or two from the NHLPA. With league revenue and franchise values growing - and the ability for the owners to sell teams at a healthy profit when the league is operating - it's unlikely that the owners are willing to reset the league again over percentage points. Most importantly, losing two seasons in a span of a decade certainly would batter the league's credibility with those who help make the game a worthwhile investment.

The core dispute still remains the splitting of revenue that reached $3.3 billion last year - although that figure seems likely to go down if this dispute drags on much into the regular season. While the players got 57 percent of league revenue in the last CBA, and the owners initially offered the players 43 percent this time around, it seems like the two sides eventually will agree on an approximate 50-50 split, at least over the life of the new deal.

Compared to implementing the cap, this is a relatively minor negotiation, as any talk of the players taking the salary cap off the table is more a tactic, as the NHLPA well knows that likely would cause the season to be lost and reset negotiations back to 2004.

While the early days of the NHL lockout have been largely unproductive and filled with bravado, it's about time for both sides to get serious, as both sides will face serious consequences if they don't.

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