If you have any doubt what a stalemate the NHL lockout has become, consider this: talks took a step backward last weekend because the league and the NHL Players' Association could not agree on who should pay for a) an extra trainer on the road and b) for each player to have his own hotel room.
Players felt teams should pay for both, especially since an extra trainer is a safety issue. Apparently, some teams only travel with one. As for single rooms, well, they've been fighting for that since Matt Stajan made Joe Nieuwendyk watch The Fifth Wheel. Right now, you can be solitary if you've played 600 NHL games.
The league, of course, feels otherwise, that these are added costs and should come out of hockey related revenue. There's no consensus and everybody leaves grumbling.
It's no wonder that, sometime this week, the NHL will announce the cancellation of regular-season games, with clubs expecting it will happen two weeks at a time. Michael Russo of The Minneapolis Star-Tribune tweeted Monday that the word "cancel" may not be used as there will be hope for an 82-game schedule if this mess is solved soon enough.
That may not be so simple, with at least one player saying there would be resistance to jamming too many back-to-back games into a shortened calendar. The path to consensus is littered with landmines.
WHY WE'RE HERE
A combination of mistrust, miscalculation and misplaced optimism has everyone trapped in labour hell. With record revenues and the highest average salary in history, there was a hope from moderates on both sides that cooler heads would prevail.
The players now believe the owners always intended to lock them out. The owners now believe the union's refusal to start negotiations until July meant it wanted to force the league to do it.
The NHL horribly misunderstood how much its first "offer" would anger the players and stiffen resolve. The players, believing many of the high-revenue teams would not want a stoppage, underestimated league commissioner Gary Bettman's ability to keep his collective in line.
Right now, it is total gridlock and there are still no good answers to the question: "What brings the thaw?" The No. 1 response remains "I don't know."
So how will this be solved? Here are some guesses:
SOMEONE MAKES A CONCESSION
Boy, this seems incredibly unlikely right now. One source (a smart guy, too) had a real good take on this. He pointed to former NHLPA boss Bob Goodenow's surprise 24 per cent rollback offer in 2004.
Goodenow threw it on the table and it became part of the dynamic. It never went away. When you consider most players weren't told that proposal was coming, then you can understand why they were so upset when it became part of the package with a salary cap.
There is a sense both sides remember that very well and don't want to make concessions that blow up in their face as badly as that one did. You have to think both have something in their back pockets they know could create movement. But they aren't ready to make them yet because history indicates doing it too early ends badly for you.
Of course, the other problem with a concession is that neither side is in the mood to make one right now.
ONE SIDE COLLAPSES
We'll see when -- or if -- this happens. Ultimately, the players have the most to lose. But on Oct. 15, they get their escrow cheques. Last year, everyone paid 8.5 per cent of their salary into these holdings. They'll get almost all of it back. If the plan is for the NHL to squeeze the opposition into submission, it will take longer.
The players are furious right now. It's a different kind of anger than in 2004, when they knew a lockout was coming. This time, the rank and file thought it could be avoided and are deeply disappointed it's gone this far. They are simply not willing to concede anything at this point.
We'll see where we are if this goes into December. Just 20 per cent of players had contracts going into 2005-06 when the last lockout began in September 2004. It's different this time, with the number closer to 60 per cent. But these are the their prime earning years and a good chunk are looking at a second salary interruption of their careers. The risk is greater for them. (AUTHOR'S NOTE: I had a lower figure in the original copy of this story. I had asked for confirmation of the numbers, but they turned out to be incorrect. My mistake anyways.)
But while the owners are hoping the union collapses, many of these same players (and their agents) believe most teams do not want a work stoppage. After talking to several people who attended the NHL's September board of governors meeting, my sense is that while most want to play eventually, Bettman has more than enough support right now.
There are some owners who are dead set against him (hint: one of them has a name that rhymes with James Dolan), but the majority are willing to see where this goes over the next couple of months.
Obviously, the high-revenue teams, especially those in Canada, are aching to start. But if Phoenix is ever going to have a chance, I can't imagine how it's good for the Coyotes, coming off their most successful season ever, to ruin that momentum. Same with the Florida Panthers, who ended a decade-long playoff drought and won the Southeast Division. The Los Angeles Kings should probably ask the Tampa Bay Lightning what happens if you don't get that "Stanley Cup bounce."
That said, there are a few things you have to understand about how things work atop the NHL. Dolan may be supremely annoyed, but the NHL constitution makes it very clear that if Bettman doesn't support a deal, 75 per cent of owners must vote against him.
Bettman is brilliant at keeping ownership under control. He's right up there with David Stern and Bud Selig when it comes to herding cats. And the NHL is not like the NBA, where Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban walks in and unabashedly racks up the GNP of a small African nation in fines. It would be unusual for the newer owners (Montreal and Toronto, for example) to challenge.
If this does go into December, many of them won't be happy with either the commissioner or Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, who is another huge obstacle. There are some in the NHLPA who are hoping for this scenario. Being hopeful is one thing, having it actually work is something else.
I include the network as a factor solely because of this story indicating the NBC Sports Network is in a ratings freefall. The NHL is its prime live property. Curious to see if this becomes a factor.
I am the first to admit I have no idea if the NHLPA's motions in Alberta and/or Quebec have any chance of success. I don't know the legalities. What I do know is this: NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr has a history of going this route.
Many people forget that the 1994 baseball strike did not end with a cancelled World Series. The next season was supposed to begin with replacements as the two sides could not even agree on what to order for lunch. But just before the games were to start, Fehr won an unfair labour practices complaint against Major League Baseball. MLB was forced to bring back the real players under the terms of the expired collective bargaining agreement (Think about that one whenever anyone mentions replacement players in the NHL).
Again, I have no idea if the courts will in any way be a factor, but I'm including it because of Fehr's history -- and he's certainly trying.
I always thought this deal would be done by second-in-commands Bill Daly and Steve Fehr. But now even they are having trouble creating movement. In the darkest days of 2005, it was Calgary Flames owner Harley Hotckhiss, along with Trevor Linden, who tried to broker an agreement. That attempt failed, but Hotchkiss was such a respected figure. He eventually played a major role in getting the new CBA done. It said a lot about him that Bettman would not stand in the way of the Linden meeting and that the union would be willing to do it.
Hotchkiss passed away in 2011. Who has his vision and steps up in his absence? If someone doesn't do it soon, we're in for the long haul.
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