The grand plan for the NHL is two weeks from Saturday to return from a seven-month hiatus, with nearly every team in action against a rival as the league tries to start to undo the damage from a long and rancor-filled lockout.
Of course, there’s the whole matter of getting the CBA done first.
With the protracted labor talks entering their final stages to try and salvage the 2012-13 season, it’s critical for the league and its players union to try and find common ground – and not miscalculate the others’ intentions – to get the league back on track to playing on-ice games instead of off-ice ones.
Both sides wheeled out their nuclear options in recent days to pressure the other side into a settlement.
For its part, the NHL indicating the “drop-dead date” when the deal had to be done (or near done) by next Thursday or Friday to avoid the league’s second cancellation in eight years. The NHLPA is responding to the NHL’s threat with a second round of disclaimer of interest voting, which could send the whole mess into the abyss of the U.S. court system, which would throw the season and outcome of the labor dispute in serious doubt.
So, in order to avoid the league’s version of mutually-assured destruction, the two sides have been talking for the past few days in New York, and with the aid of a federal mediator, trying to bridge the last gap to a deal.
But in the final stages as the two sides jockey for final concessions, the process is very delicate, as a bad mistake or miscalculation on either side and time running short could mean a disaster for the league, with billions lost and the league’s already tattering reputation getting further stained.
Quite simply, neither side can afford to make a big mistake and let the opportunity to salvage its season slip through its fingers.
The league has achieved an almost-guaranteed win in reducing the players’ share of revenue from 57 to 50 percent, but is now running the risk of costing itself more money in lost revenues to get the concession than not changing the system at all. For the players, while they are getting some late concessions from the league as the days to the deadline dwindle, they also are losing games – and millions in salaries – to get them, with an estimated $800 million lost even if the players settle on a 48-game schedule.
Back in 2004-05, while the owners were willing to cancel a season for a salary cap, the players eventually blinked, but erred badly in not leaving themselves enough time to save the year, as last-ditch talks in February collapsed. That failure ended up costing players over a billion in lost salaries they would never recover. Veterans from that labor dispute lament the money that vaporized in that dispute, and when the NHLPA stumbled badly at the finish line, it cost then-NHLPA head Bob Goodenow his job once the new CBA was finalized.
As a result of their defeat at the table, the players called in Major League Baseball’s former union head, Don Fehr, who they felt wouldn’t make the same error. And while Fehr has the support of the bulk of his players, it will be quite different down the road if he can’t do what he was brought in to do – to get a deal done. Even though he was popular among baseball players in his days with MLB’s union, he never lost more than two months of his union members’ salaries at one time, coming in the 1994 strike that wiped out the World Series.
For the owners, the reputation of the product is at stake.
While fans were very forgiving after the 2004-05 dispute, the mood isn’t good towards the NHL right now. The league did a good job selling the lockout and need for a cap to limit the damage, this time, the narrative of revenue sharing has evaporated into a fight over player contract length and pensions – neither of which should put a season at risk.
Fans are angry, sponsors are upset and the league’s broadcast partners aren’t happy either with the absence of a product, and the league is taking a hit in the court of marketability. A lost year would be an absolute disaster for the industry that has its boosters suffering from labor fatigue, not unlike baseball’s ill-fated 1994 strike that capped off a string of disputes dating back to the 1970s.
Baseball in 1995 took years to recover the damage it did to itself, and hockey is at risk of that potential damage with a lost season.
So, to get those rivalry games on ice in two weeks, the pressure is on both sides to deliver a deal, and both sides have been running down the clock to hope they could get a better deal.
But the path is narrow, and both sides will have to finally close on a deal despite circling the final CBA for months in a slow circle. Because if they don’t, the consequences will be dire for the league and its players.
Ted Starkey is a Contributor to District Sports Page. Ted is a veteran sportswriter who works for SB Nation Washington, and has written for The Washington Times, Tampa Tribune, AOL Sports, USAHockey.com and BuffaloBills.com, along with a pair of books on the Capitals, Red Rising and Transition Game. He has covered the NHL, NFL and MLB, along with the 2002 and 2010 Winter Olympics and several Stanley Cup and Calder Cup playoffs. You can follow him at @TedStarkey.