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NHL, NHLPA's dangerous game nears the edge

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly says that the league has a drop-dead date, and says that there will still be a 2012-13 season.

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NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly
NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly
Bruce Bennett

While Washington continues to negotiate the "fiscal cliff," the National Hockey League continues its own high-priced game of chicken.

This week, the two sides brought out their biggest weapons in the ugly and protracted labor fight. Not coincidentally, they were brought out almost simultaneously.

While the league had been reluctant to set a drop-dead date for the 2012-13 season to be played - NHL commissioner Gary Bettman hinted that a 48-game schedule would be the bare minimum for the league - deputy commissioner Bill Daly on Wednesday told Toronto's Fan 590 radio that the date is coming soon.

"Obviously as we're moving toward the end of December we have to look realistically as to how many games we can play," Daly told the radio station. "The commissioner is on record saying that we're not looking to play a season that is less than 48 games.

"It's fair to say [the date is] sometime in mid-January," Daly said.

Back in 1994-95, the league settled a lockout on Jan. 11 and began play on Jan. 20, playing - you guessed it, 48 games. While Bettman's comments earlier this month put that drop-dead date in the same range as 18 years ago, Daly's comments cemented the timeline for hockey's mutual assured destruction deadline.

Of course, all this was said in the shadow of the players voting to arm its negotiating committee with the right to declare a disclaimer of interest, which the players hope will push the owners into settlement, since that declaration could take the NHL's near certainty of a labor win over the union into a court of law. While the results of such a move are debatable - the NFL and NBA started down that road before settling their recent disputes - it certainly adds an air of uncertainty for the league to consider.

The NHL and NHLPA have been playing a game of brinksmanship in the 95 days since the NHL lockout started, and with the union making its move to get a players' vote, it wasn't a surprise the league raised the stakes as well to push both sides to the brink.

While the league is expected to cancel another set of games soon, wiping out games into January, at this point, that announcement is largely a formality.

The old schedule is just a collector's item now, to be replaced with a new compact version of almost assuredly only intra-conference games. While home dates of games may be preserved, most will be changed with new opponents, with games running into what would have been the first round of the playoffs.

While previous cancellation announcements had the sting of players losing a paycheck, that doesn't apply to this next round of cancellations, since the games that would be taken away in this grouping will be replaced if the season gets underway with a 48-game slate. Technically, the next round of cancellations would wipe out the seventh of 13 checks the players get this year, or 54 percent of their pay, but any settlement will pay the players a pro-rated amount of their salaries, knocking out just 41 percent with a 48-game slate.

For example, the Capitals would have 48 games remaining starting with their first game after Christmas - previously scheduled for Dec. 26 at Buffalo - so it's expected that those games after that point will be rescheduled should an agreement be reached. Players won't lose any more in salary if a settlement is reached with a 48-game schedule, so the leverage the owners normally would have is gone.

Owners don't really lose a lot either at this point, since sponsorship dollars now will be pro-rated, and 48 games played means the same financially, whether the games start now or in three weeks.

Simply put, the players almost assuredly won't lose any more money in salary if the season is saved, and the owners won't lose much more from sponsors, putting the talks in a state of suspended animation until January.

With little incentive for either side to budge - even the loss of hundreds of games and likely over a billion dollars in revenue hasn't been enough so far to lead to a settlement - it seems unlikely the two sides will move to complete a deal much before the virtual cliff arrives.

Brinksmanship has become a powerful tool in sports labor. The 1994-95 NHL season was saved on the verge of cancellation, while talks were pushed into February during the 2004-05 stoppage. But of course, the prize in that fight was a salary cap, which owners wanted since it limited the amount teams spend on player salaries, and helped boost franchise values.

In this case, unlike eight years ago, neither side really can afford to take this game over the cliff.

Even Daly tipped his hand a bit later on Wednesday, telling CBC's Elliotte Friedman "yes" when asked if the NHL would indeed have a season on SiriusXM. That indicates the league is strongly leaning towards settling the dispute rather than seeing it spill into the unknown of an uncertain offseason.

The owners' gains will be much more modest than the cap and 18 percent reduction in salaries won in the 2004-05 lockout, and likely would be wiped out should the season go by the boards. Simply put, if the league loses the season, they financially - even long-term - likely would have been better off just keeping the old system and riding the growth the game had seen before this season.

As the Globe and Mail reported this week, the NHL's public image in Canada is down near British Petroleum's after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, making the mulligan fans gave the league in 2005 a much less likely occurrence this time around.

While a number of fans will return after the lockout, a big question is how much of those casual fans will return, and whether the ones who do come back will drop the same amount in the league's coffers again?

Sponsors are also on edge, as the league has lost its luster as a business partner, and without a positive image, there's some concern some companies could reduce or jettison their ties with the NHL.

The players will avoid the crushing defeat they got in 2004-05, when then-NHLPA president Bob Goodenow capitulated on the salary cap but couldn't close a deal. Losing a year's salary would be a big setback, and likely not bring a much better result with the league's coffers damaged.

Players are going to lose salary in the $700 million range thanks to this lockout going nearly a half-season, losing the rest of the year would cost them an amount of money the players can never hope to recoup in their careers. Add to that the fact that nearly one-third of the league's players are in the final years of their contracts and three-quarters aren't playing in the NHL or Europe, and that's a deep hole that would be impossible to climb out of.

Barring a major miscalculation by one or both of the sides, it seems apparent the two sides will come to an agreement near the edge of losing the season, Financially, they likely couldn't afford not to.

In the short-term, however, it looks like both sides are content to bide their time and hope to wait out their negotiating partner. With little to be gained at this point in settling before then, it certainly appears the waiting game for all involved is going to be a bit longer.

At least now, there's an expiration date.