After Labor Day Holiday, NHL Labor War Approaches

NEWARK, NJ - MAY 30: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman addresses the media prior to Game One between the Los Angeles Kings and the New Jersey Devils in the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Prudential Center on May 30, 2012 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

In a normal NHL year, the passing of the Labor Day holiday would usually mean that training camps were just around the corner. This year, however, is far from normal.

While the end of Labor Day weekend is widely regarded as the unofficial start of fall, the weekend's passing also holds significance for NHL fans. This year, training camps are scheduled to open on Sept. 12 and in a normal year, the countdown to the new season would officially begin.

"It's getting close to hockey time," new Capitals head coach Adam Oates told a group of reporters Tuesday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex as a group of Washington skaters - including team captain Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom - took part in an unofficial workout.

But labor uncertainty looms across the league this year, and while Washington's training camp is tentatively slated to start with the rookies' arrival to Kettler next weekend, Capitals General Manager George McPhee says that nothing is certain as the old collective bargaining agreement is slated to expire September 15.

McPhee echoed what he told SB Nation DC two weeks ago to reporters gathered in Arlington today saying "everybody's sort of operating of business as usual," and declining to go more in depth as to his own preparations for a potential labor stoppage. He simply said, "if it changes, we'll adjust."

Oates echoed McPhee's sentiments, saying right now he's "acting as if it's going to be business as usual" until further notice.

Talks between the NHL and NHLPA broke down last Friday, with no new talks scheduled and just 10 days to go before the agreement expires. Also, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has said he would not let the league playunder the old agreement. The mood isn't bright around the game at the moment, as both Bettman and NHLPA head Don Fehr portray the gap between the two sides as vast.

While the fines are too heavy for the owners to talk about the labor situation - Washington owner Ted Leonsis is one of four owners on the NHL's negotiating committee - the players are well aware of the public relations value of speaking out about it. Ovechkin - who shaved his head over the weekend while Tweeting that he was "ready to fight for NHLPA" and telling reporters "I'm one of the soldiers on the NHLPA"- addressed reporters about the upcoming labor issue.

"I think it's not fair for us," Ovechkin told reporters. "They still make money, they still sell tickets and they have money. Why they sign us long-term deals and that kind of money to after that when the CBA's gonna be done, they wanna cut our salary. Why they wanna cut 24 [percent]? Why don't they wanna cut a hundred percent of salary?"

Asked about the potential impact on fans, Ovechkin was succinct.

"Of course it's gonna be hard, of course it's gonna be a long time to wait, but it is what it is," he said. "Everybody wants to play hockey and make money. Nobody wants to play for free."

At one point in his questioning, Ovechkin answered a question about potentially leaving for another league if a pay cut is part of the new CBA, saying "I'm going to think about it, but I hope not ... Crosby just signed, Suter, Weber just signed huge deals and they want to cut 24 percent for nothing? I don't think it's fair enough."

Of course, part of that statement is rhetoric, since it is important to note that an Ovechkin defection would be exceedingly unlikely once the new CBA is put into place. Such a move would require either a release from Ovechkin's current deal with the Capitals or his signing with a league that wouldn't honor pre-existing NHL deals.

At this point in negotiations, it seems inevitable that both sides are content to let the current CBA expire. Once Sept. 15 arrives, the pressure will truly begin to be leveled on both sides to get a deal done in short order.

For owners, the potential cancellation of preseason games - including the Capitals' preseason opener on Sept. 25 against Boston and the Sept. 26 game against Columbus at First Mariner Arena in Baltimore - would cost them a chance to cash in on collecting the ticket prices for the exhibition contests while only paying the players a nominal stipend during camp. While the teams certainly will hold some sort of training camp once the CBA is ratified, it would likely be compressed to fit in as much of the pre-existing NHL schedule as possible, and it would likely include a shorter preseason.

Players wouldn't be paying out of their own pockets for the work stoppage until the scheduled regular-season start on Oct. 11, as they are only paid in-season. Unlike in the 2004-05 lockout, the blow of losing their first check is softened by the arrival of an escrow check for having part of their salaries withheld under the old CBA. Those checks would arrive on Oct. 15.

In the long run, the players, with their limited career windows, have more to lose than the owners, but that escrow will help most of the players withstand the delaying of their first game check, and delay a potential exodus to accept temporary deals overseas.

As I've pointed out in this space before, I don't think the current labor situation is as bad as it was in 2004 - or even as it was in 1994 - but it does seem to be playing out to the point where NHL fans will officially see their sport deal with a fourth labor disruption in 20 years. The two sides, despite sporadic negotiations, are employing a bit of brinksmanship at the moment, looking to pressure the other side into taking a deal. Bettman and Fehr are both well-versed in these affairs, and both know that ratcheting up the stakes on the other side will help lead to an eventual solution.

And, so while Labor Day usually means hockey's around the corner, this year, it appears that the start of the season could be pushed back for some time.

While he is excited to get his first NHL season as a head coach underway, Oates is aware that the NHL, after all, is a business.

"I'm excited to be a head coach, no question, but it's business," he said. "It's the same in every walk of life. There are unions everywhere, you just do your job."

Thanks to NBC Washington's Adam Vingan for the Ovechkin quotes used in the story.

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