In our Best of the Books feature, Rory Boylen looks back on the darkest day in the NHL history when the league did the unthinkable and cancelled the entire 2004-05 season.
By the turn of the 21st century, work stoppages had become a semi-regular occurrence in professional sports. In football, the NFL had gone through mid-season player strikes in 1982 and 1987 that were resolved after a few weeks and didn’t threaten the season. MLB had been through a number of strikes and lockouts, with its most costly stoppage coming midway through the 1994 season, when 938 games and the World Series were cancelled. And in basketball, the NBA had to shave 32 games off its regular season in 1998-99 and a 2011 lockout delayed the season opener until Christmas Day.
The NHL, of course, had its own history of a dubious relationship between the players and the owners. From the owners’ attempts to block the formation of a players’ union in the Ted Lindsay days to the shameful Alan Eagleson era, distrust had festered and led to a brief player strike in 1992 and a lockout in 1994-95 that lasted three-and-a-half months. The latter shaved the season down to 48 games.
Despite the history of rifts between owners and workers across professional sports, no league had allowed a dispute to erase an entire season. Even as the 2004-05 NHL lockout was cancelling games into December and January, there was still the hope that the two sides would come to some sort of agreement to save the season and have a Stanley Cup winner. After all, in 1994-95, the NHL resumed games even though lawyers from both sides still wouldn’t sign off on all the details until a few months later. So fans had reason to hold out hope for a solution until the bitter end, which made Gary Bettman’s official cancellation of the NHL season on Feb. 16, 2005, a shock.
“It makes no sense to me,” Tyson Nash, now retired, told THN at the time. “They aren’t going to get a better deal, we aren’t going to get a better deal, so why are we doing this?”
“Holy cripes! They did it,” Steve Dryden, then THN’s editor in chief, wrote in his notebook in the first issue after the announcement. “The doomsdayers, unlike the millennium scaremongers back in 1999, were right this time. The clock struck midnight and the world imploded. Go figure.”
By the time Bettman called the season off, the lockout had been going on for nearly five months. Fans already were furious and flustered at the developments, or lack thereof, in negotiations. However, because of past sports labor precedents, the fact that NHL owners relinquished their desire for a cap a decade earlier, and the belief that reason and common sense would eventually break down propaganda and lead to business compromise, it was confounding to contemplate that a season and all its revenues had indeed been flushed away.
Even after the season was called off, there were still rumblings that a backdoor deal could save the season and rumors swirled that legends Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux were getting involved. But nothing close to a deal-saver came to pass.
What made this dark piece of NHL history all the more shocking was how close the league and NHLPA were to an agreement on doomsday. In December, the players’ union made a surprising offer to roll back salaries by 24 percent, a sum they’d refused to approach up to that point. Still, the major sticking point throughout was the league’s desire for a salary cap and the union’s assertion that it would go no further than offering a form of revenue sharing to aid smaller markets, a stand they would step off in mid-February, to the astonishment of some players.
Still, the union’s offer was a $49-million cap that wasn’t tied to league revenues. The league, meanwhile, stuck to a $42.5-million cap that would be linked to unpredictable future revenue levels.
With so little between them in the dying hours, there seemed to be plenty of room for compromise and an 11th-hour signoff. To everyone’s shock, however, reason was shunned and pigheaded partisanship won the day.
“A $45-million cap? Yeah, that’s something I would accept if it meant we would be playing hockey and helping the game,” Dwayne Roloson told THN at the time. “I know our executive committee had room to move. The league had room to move. We both had bluff hands, but nobody made the call.”
The two sides finally reached a deal on a new collective bargaining agreement that July. The league got a salary cap linked to revenues, just like it wanted, and the NHLPA was left in shambles. The 2004-05 lockout left a permanent void on the Stanley Cup and remains a black mark that will never be stricken from the record books.
This is an excerpt from THN’s book, Biggest of Everything in Hockey.