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NHL Lockout 2012: Time, finally, becomes a factor

The moribund labor talks were recalled to life Tuesday and Wednesday.

Capitals General Manager George McPhee (left) leaves Wednesday's NHL Board of Governors meeting in New York alongside Lightning CEO Tod Leiweke
Capitals General Manager George McPhee (left) leaves Wednesday's NHL Board of Governors meeting in New York alongside Lightning CEO Tod Leiweke
Bruce Bennett

The NHL lockout had plodded along for 80 mostly unproductive days heading into Tuesday's players-owners meeting, with both sides electing to employ stall tactics to try and gain leverage on the other side.

Heading into the get-together, the glacially-paced process seemed to be continuing without much urgency. It took the two sides three days just to set up what was supposed to be an informal meeting to inject up some new blood into the process.

But in the end, it proved to be the point where both sides elected to start working in earnest toward a settlement.

The two sides held marathon talks Tuesday, and after the league's Board of Governors' meeting Wednesday, held talks into late Wednesday night with an urgency unseen so far in this dispute.

What changed the dynamic of the negotiations?

Many will credit the presence of Penguins owner Ron Burkle and Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby, as well as that of three other owners in the mix that hadn't previously been part of talks. The presence of some of the more moderate voices on the owners' side of the table certainly was meant to gain some traction in getting the two sides working towards a solution.

And, in the end, the dynamic certainly helped the two sides engage in better dialogue and reach a more substantial point of the talks.

But one aspect that can't be overlooked in the narrative is the fact that for both sides, time was beginning to run out to get a deal done.

With the NHL using the same roadmap as last year's NBA lockout, the league's goal was to gain a bigger percentage of revenue in exchange for the loss of the low-revenue first portion of the schedule. But as the lockout wore on, more and more games came off the schedule and the real potential for long-term damage started to loom.

Sponsorship dollars were also being put at risk, as the NHL reportedly only gets 75 percent of the money from its core backers if less than 61 games are played in a season. As of Wednesday night, the Capitals had lost 26 games, so time is running short to potentially fit a schedule of even 61 games together - even using dates blocked off for home playoff dates to wrap up the regular season.

In addition, the potential of losing a season - something that would certainly wipe out any meaningful gains of a greater percentage of revenue for the owners - was beginning to become a factor. The lockout was really only economically feasible for the owners as a short-term stoppage. A long-term dispute threatened to cost the league more than it could possibly gain. Unlike in 2004-05, where the cap and a large rollback on salaries were deemed necessary to lose an entire year, this is merely a fight over revenue percentage.

With their page torn from the NBA playbook, it certainly seemed at some point the league - having shaved a certain percentage of players' salaries off the books in the last year - would suddenly become a lot more receptive to former negotiating sticking points.

For the players, last week marked the fourth paycheck lost for the 2012-13 season, and while the NHLPA had hoped to use a slow negotiating pace to exert pressure on the owners, the money lost is adding up. Although the NHLPA authorized a $10,000 stipend last week, it's important to remember that that is less than what a player earning the NHL minimum earns in just two games.

While contracting rights were a big factor for the NHLPA, the NHL hadn't really budged on the issue until Tuesday. But the issue seemed more of a bargaining chip for the league, since its primary concern was the amount of revenue it kept rather than how that payroll was distributed.

When the league apparently cashed in one of its biggest bargaining chips, clearly the signs were there that both sides were ready to settle.

As mentioned in this space before - and as suggested by Steve Fehr a couple of weeks back in Toronto - once the two sides actually wanted to try and reach a settlement, the process would move along quickly. And, after over two months of fighting and putting the product at risk, it seems both sides finally realized time was running short to get a deal done.

While a deal isn't done yet, it appears that even if it doesn't happen this week, the sides appear too close on too many issues to lose the season now.

And after this week, they both appear to actually want to settle sooner than later.