Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 18, 2012

New NHL Talks, But Scant Reason For Optimism

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A year ago at this time I was able to predict an imminent end to the NBA lockout over Thanksgiving weekend with a high degree of confidence. That wasn’t because of any inside knowledge on my part, but rather because of the enormous financial incentive to both the league and the players to get the season going in time for the NBA’s annual Christmas Day kickoff of its national television contract. That correct prediction was also easy to make because it was clear from the information leaking out of the negotiations that the union’s position was steadily crumbling. Sure enough, just in the nick of time the players capitulated to almost all of the owners demands, training camps were opened, and millions of fans were able to rush through the opening of presents in time to watch a triple header of Christmas Day games usher in an abbreviated, 66-game NBA season.

The calendar has made its annual turn and Thanksgiving is once again at hand. Just like last year, a major sports league, this time the NHL, is in the midst of a labor dispute, one-quarter of a season has already been cancelled and more games could be written off at any time. Hopes rose the week before last when the two sides met for several days in a row, only to be dashed when talks collapsed yet again. After several days of no contact between the league and the players, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman seemed to suggest that a hopelessly wide gulf remained between the two sides when he proposed a two week break in negotiations. But against the backdrop of that grim suggestion, deputy commissioner Bill Daly and players association special counsel Steve Fehr spoke by phone on Friday; and after further talks over the weekend both sides now say that they will meet again on Monday to renew formal negotiations.

Early last week Fehr, the number two official in the union and brother to NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr went so far as to say that “when the moment is right, the deal could be done very quickly – one day, three days, whatever.” Despite that comment and despite the resumption of talks, I have none of the optimism about an imminent resolution for the NHL that I possessed this time last year for the NBA. Hockey’s equivalent of the NBA’s Christmas Day television extravaganza is the Winter Classic, the great outdoor hockey game held on New Year’s Day; or on January 2nd in the case of last season’s game between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers. New Year’s Day 2012 fell on a Sunday, and the NHL was smart enough to realize that not even its most highly rated and popular contest could compete for ratings with the final weekend of the NFL’s regular season. But this season’s Winter Classic has already been cancelled. The game between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs that was to have been played in front of more than 100,000 fans at Michigan Stadium won’t take place even if a settlement is reached as soon as the two sides sit down together on Monday. Instead the NHL’s premiere television spectacle is just one of 327 regular season games already lost.

In addition to the lack of a television incentive, the two sides appear much further apart on many more issues than was the case with the NBA and that league’s players a year ago. While most of the focus has been on the dispute over the split of hockey related revenue, the question of whether or when more than $3 billion will be divided 50-50 is just one of the issues to be resolved, and perhaps no longer even the main one. The league is insisting on wholesale changes to the terms of player contracts. Even as the last round of talks was breaking down Bettman and Daly were characterizing as non-negotiable changes that would limit contracts to five years, prohibit back-loading of contracts, increase the age and service time for free agency eligibility to age 28 or eight years in the league, limit entry-level deals to two years, and increase to five years the eligibility period for salary arbitration.

That laundry list of demands led superstar Sidney Crosby to question whether the owners really want a settlement. “To have contracting rights….it’s not money, it’s the rights as a player within your profession, so that’s what I think guys are definitely going to stand strong on,” said the Pittsburgh Penguins captain. “And it’s ridiculous to try to change that after the success of the league that everybody’s had here the last seven or eight years,” he added. Finally, if and when the wide gulf on all of these issues is somehow closed, the owners and the players will still have to agree on how much of the losses caused by the lockout each side will absorb. That of course becomes a more expensive discussion with each passing day.

When the two sides met on four consecutive days the week before last, some pundits began to speculate about a 68-game season that would begin on December 1st. That hopeful chatter has given way to speculation about the timing of an announcement that more regular season games are being cancelled, and the fate of the All-Star Game, at the moment still scheduled for January 27th. Players last week missed their third pay day. While scarcely an issue to the likes of Crosby, there are plenty of lesser known skaters who have to be feeling the pinch. But the players have been remarkably unified thus far, with no hints of any cracks in their resolve.

The 1994-95 lockout lasted until the second week in January. In 2005, Bettman waited until the middle of February before stating the obvious, that an entire season was lost. Perhaps Steve Fehr is right, and once something happens to break the logjam a resolution will quickly be at hand. But a year ago at this time it seemed obvious that a league in the midst of a lockout was about to give its fans something for which they would be truly thankful. This time around, it feels much more like a season is on the brink.


  1. As a baseball fan, I am just so glad that it’s now been 18 years since the last major showdown between the owners and players in that sport. Practically an entire generation of young baseball fans has come of age never having experienced that kind of dispute. Hopefully, it will remain that way for many years to come.
    As for hockey, I’m not much of a fan, but I’ll work under the assumption that, as usual, the owners are willing to bring down an entire sport rather than make reasonable concessions to the players.
    Another fine post,

    • That’s a very safe assumption. Thanks for your kind words Bill, and happy Thanksgiving!

    • That’s excellent! Very clever. Thanks for reading.

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