NEW YORK, N.Y. – The NHL lockout is well over 100 days long, and yet it is still hard to tell whether the league and the players’ association are all that close to a deal to save the hockey season. Unlike eight years ago, when a lockout caused the cancellation of the entire season, the issues keeping the sides apart this time are mostly financially based disputes and not a philosophical divide as was the salary cap debate then.
So what exactly is putting another hockey season on the brink of ruin? The NHL already is the only North American major professional sports league to lose a whole year because of a labour dispute. It certainly would like to avoid doing it twice.
Q: What are the major issues still keeping the sides apart?
A: There are a variety of things that need to be resolved. They range from a pension plan, to the maximum length of player contracts, the annual salary difference in multiyear contracts, the salary cap amount for the 2013-14 season, and the length of the new collective bargaining agreement. The sides seem to be willing to agree to a 10-year deal, but there is disagreement as to whether to have an opt-out clause after seven years or eight.
Q: Is this the first time there has been labour unrest in hockey?
A: This is the fourth time in 20 years that labour issues affected a season. A lockout in 1994-95 was resolved in time for the NHL to stage a 48-game season after a settlement in January. The 2004-05 season was cancelled completely because of a lockout, marking the first time the Stanley Cup wasn’t awarded since 1919. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has said he won’t stage a season with fewer than 48 games. He said an agreement with the union would have to be reached by Jan. 11 for that to happen this season.
Q: How does this lockout differ from the one eight years ago?
A: Back in 2004 and 2005, the NHL was willing to lose an entire season to have a salary-cap system instituted for the first time, which the league wanted to provide cost certainty for all 30 teams. The original salary cap in the 2005-06 season was $39 million, and it rose to $64.3 million last season. After the NHL generated record revenues of $3.3 billion last season, the cap for the 2012-13 season was set at $70.2 million. In the previous agreement, teams also were required to reach a minimum payroll amount of $16 million below the upper range of the cap. Players had received 57 per cent of hockey-related revenue under the deal that expired in September. It is believed the split would be 50-50 in the new agreement.
Q: What would it mean if the union declares a disclaimer of interest?
A: The union no longer would have the right to collectively bargain and would become something akin to a trade association. This action, if upheld, would remove NHL players from labour law and allow individual players to file antitrust suits against the NHL. Players’ association head Donald Fehr would cease negotiating on behalf of the players collectively, but talks with the league on a new collective bargaining agreement could continue—collective bargaining rights would have to be regained for a labour contract to be signed.
Q: Are there other legal matters in play in the dispute?
A: The NHL filed suit in federal court in Manhattan to have the lockout declared legal. The league also sued the union in mid-December, figuring the players were about to submit their own complaint against the league and give up collective bargaining rights to gain leverage in negotiations. On Thursday, the union filed a response with the court arguing the NHL is using this suit “to force the players to remain in a union. Not only is it virtually unheard of for an employer to insist on the unionization of its employees, it is also directly contradicted by the rights guaranteed to employees under … the National Labor Relations Act.” The court scheduled a status conference for Monday. Also on Thursday, the NHLPA filed a motion seeking to dismiss the league’s suit.