NHL players, Hamilton labour expert weigh in on NHL lockout

A look at why the players and league can't come to an agreement.

Consensus is that things are looking bleak

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman proposed Thursday that the leadership from both sides step aside for the next bargaining session, leaving a group of owners and players to try and break the current NHL lockout stalemate. (Kathy Willens/Associated Press)

Montreal Canadiens prospect Louis Leblanc can sum up the NHL lockout pretty easily.

"No one is happy," Leblanc said. "The players or the owners."

His new Hamilton Bulldogs teammate Mike Commodore is slightly less diplomatic. "This isn't a negotiation," Commodore told CBC Hamilton. "It's a stick up.

"Things don't look very promising."

The great impasse

As the lockout stretches into its 76th day, there seems to be little hope in sight — for anyone — that the season will be saved.

Commissioner Gary Bettman proposed Thursday that the leadership from both sides step aside for the next bargaining session, leaving a group of owners and players to try and break the stalemate.

The specific parameters of the meeting weren't set out and the NHLPA said it would take the offer to its executive board and negotiating committee for consideration.

Bettman's proposal came with the sides unable to bridge a gap in collective bargaining negotiations despite sitting through a series of sessions with U.S. federal mediators Scot L. Beckenbaugh and John Sweeney in Woodbridge, N.J., this week.

Wayne Lewchuk, a professor of labour studies and economics at McMaster University to analyze the situation, said fans shouldn't hold their breath for NHL action anytime soon.

"The two sides have hardened," he said. "The NHL is making a case based on the reality that some of their teams are losing money."

"But the players are saying the league as a whole is making money."

And it is — according to a letter sent by the NHLPA to Canadian Parliament, the NHL has managed seven straight seasons of record revenue.

But that revenue isn't even remotely balanced among the league's teams. According to a survey released Wednesday by Forbes, the NHL's 30 teams are worth an average $282 million — a 17.5 per cent rise from 2011.

The league's top five teams in terms of revenue are worth an average $605 million — but the bottom five teams average a value of just $145 million.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are said to be worth $1 billion, followed by the New York Rangers ($750 million) and the Montreal Canadiens ($575 million).

According to Lewchuk, teams at the bottom end of that spectrum, such as Phoenix and Columbus, are part of the problem.

"If an auto maker is making a car that doesn't sell, they don't make it anymore," Lewchuk said. "I don't think you can base your bargaining strategy on 15 per cent of your teams losing money.

"In some ways, it defies logic."

But remove those teams from the equation and ship them to a more favourable market — Lewchuk casually mentioned Hamilton — and things become much easier.

Inflated contracts

Then there are the contracts themselves. The last move at the bargaining table came from the NHLPA, which presented a new offer last week that moved within $182 million of the league over a five-year deal.

But there is still a cavernous divide between players and owners regarding the size and length of current contracts — which many seem to think have spiraled out of control.

"It's like the owners saying 'we can't discipline ourselves and control this foolishness,'" Lewchuk said. "So you do it."

"They're trying to get the players to solve the problem for them and absolve them of responsibility."

The whole process is a sore spot for Commodore.

"The union side keeps coming with proposals — we're moving in their direction. All we're doing is giving and giving," he said.

"They need to be moving our way at least a little bit from their original stance."

The journeyman defenceman also went so far as to call the owner's first offer a "slap in the face."

"Yeah, they've negotiated off that — but it's so far to the other side that 50/50 looked like a gift."

Rumblings of 2004

Lewchuk says at this point, fans need to start facing the reality that the entire season or more could be lost.

"It's a scary place to go," he said. "You'd have a lot of very angry people. It would raise questions as to the viability of the league next season."

There's been a fair bit of rage hurled at players — especially on Twitter. Commodore says he understands that, even though he's been the recipient of some Twitter rage himself.

"But it's not like I like this. I'm angry too," he said. "A year without the NHL isn't good year for me."

Leblanc says fans everywhere are just frustrated with the entire process. "They just want to see hockey," he said.

So what will it take to final get a deal in place?

"Two parties that are actually willing to negotiate and find some common ground," Commodore said.

But to hear most tell it, that's still a long way off.

With files from the Canadian Press