The real losses have begun.
Two weeks of the NHL’s regular season was wiped off the calendar Thursday and it appears almost certain those won’t be the only meaningful games sacrificed during the lockout.
It’s an all-too familiar position for the league, which attempted to strike a conciliatory tone in announcing the cancellation of the opening 82 games of the 2012-13 season.
“The game deserves better, the fans deserve better and the people who derive income from their connection to the NHL deserve better,” said deputy commissioner Bill Daly. “We remain committed to doing everything in our power to forge an agreement that is fair to the players, fair to the teams and good for our fans.”
The sport has simply been unable to break free from its recent history of labour unrest. It lost 468 games during the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season and all 1,320 regular-season games that were scheduled in 2004-05, which was wiped out in its entirety by another work stoppage.
The earliest this season could start is Oct. 25.
While it remains possible some of Thursday’s cancelled games could still be tacked on to the schedule, it would require a major change in the direction of talks—not to mention a quick solution.
That seemed extremely unlikely with no bargaining sessions scheduled and the lockout about to enter its fourth week. The sides really haven’t got down to meaningful negotiations despite meeting regularly since the end of June.
Donald Fehr, the NHLPA’s executive director, once again criticized owners for enacting the lockout last month. He also questioned their motives in light of the cancellations.
“If the owners truly cared about the game and the fans, they would lift the lockout and allow the season to begin on time while negotiations continue,” said Fehr. “A lockout should be the last resort in bargaining, not the strategy of first resort. For nearly 20 years, the owners have elected to lock-out the players in an effort to secure massive concessions.”
The sides haven’t been able to find agreement on how best to split up the US$3.3 billion the NHL took in revenues last season. The league is looking for an immediate rollback on salaries while the players are pushing to have all current contracts honoured.
Against that backdrop, Daly claimed earlier this week that the lockout had already cost the league almost $100 million in lost revenue.
“That is not going to be recouped and that’s going to cost both sides,” he said after talks broke off Tuesday in New York. “That’s unfortunate but it’s a reality of where we are.”
It’s only going to get worse now.
The delayed start to the season will ensure players miss the first of 13 paycheques, which were scheduled to go out on Oct. 15. Owners are facing the prospect of empty buildings, missed gates and, in some cases, refunds to ticket-holders.
With the industry bracing for another long work stoppage, players have scattered around the globe. More than 100 have already found jobs in Europe—roughly 15 per cent of the union’s total membership—and that number is expected to climb now that meaningful games are gone.
Some were quick to vent their frustration on Twitter after news of the cancellations was released, including reigning Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist. The New York Rangers goalie called on Bettman and Fehr to return to the bargaining table.
“Feels like I’m going to practice without a purpose, and I hate it! Don and Gary, let’s figure this one out! #NHLHockey #theplayers #thefans,” Lundqvist wrote.
Doom and gloom has enveloped the talks in recent weeks and fears seem to be on the rise that another full season could be lost. As recently as the Stanley Cup final in June, that notion seemed unimaginable with the league trumpeting yet another season of record revenues.
However, both sides insist that all is not lost.
They have maintained a regular dialogue and kept the process from getting personal, which is a notable change from 2004-05, and neither seems particularly willing to see the mistakes of the past repeated.
“This is not about ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ a negotiation,” said Daly. “This is about finding a solution that preserves the long-term health and stability of the league and the game.
“We are committed to getting this done.”
Fehr shares that sentiment.
“It’s going to require sitting there and staying with it—even if it’s unpleasant, even if people aren’t saying anything new right away, even if you’d rather be doing something else—until you find a way to do it,” he said.