Commentary

Seven years after the lockout, the NHL’s labor peace again is in doubt

April 8, 2012 

— For many fans, the realization that all was not exactly well in the NHL’s labor universe was the players’ union’s decision in January to block the implementation of the realignment plan.

That was the first visible shot fired in the NHL’s next labor war, which everyone hopes is a mere skirmish compared to the Armageddon that shut down the league for a year seven years ago. The labor agreement hammered out then will expire in September. No one wants another lockout this time around.

With the regular season complete and the playoffs about to begin, the specifics of the bargaining have yet to be determined, but major changes to the framework established by the lockout are unlikely. If the NBA’s new labor agreement is any indication, the owners will ask the NHL Players’ Association to take a smaller piece of the revenue pie, a concession new NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, a veteran of the baseball labor wars, is unlikely to welcome.

If the NHL and NHLPA can get it down to dollars and cents, that’s just basic negotiating. Set a deadline, and it tends to get done. It’s the bigger systemic issues – such as realignment – that threaten to hold things up.

“There’s a whole bunch of stuff that has to be discussed, and I think that’s the process right now, why everyone is eager to get negotiations started,” said Bryan Allen, the Carolina Hurricanes’ NHLPA representative. “Don’s pretty new to this, too, and he’s making sure he’s doing things properly, taking his time and finding the important points.”

One of the biggest issues to be bargained – and one where the NHL might have found some leverage on the players – is the 2014 Olympics. The league has very little interest in participating, because the games will be in Sochi, Russia, well outside of prime time in North America.

It’s one thing to shut down the league for two weeks for an Olympics played in North America; it’s another to send the league’s best players halfway around the world for the benefit of the IOC and IIHF, as the NHL discovered in 2006 when the Winter Games were in Italy.

For players, though, the importance of the Olympics should not be underestimated. When Fehr traveled to Russia in February, he met with prime minister Vladimir Putin, Hockey Night in Canada’s Elliotte Friedman reported. Not many North American union leaders are invited into that office.

“It’s huge,” said Hurricanes defenseman Tim Gleason, a U.S. Olympian in 2010. “Other than winning the Stanley Cup, playing in the Olympics should be any hockey player’s dream. To fulfill that dream, everybody should have that opportunity for sure.”

For the NHLPA to achieve any of its goals, it’s going to have to match the owners in discipline. The NHL was a unified bloc in the last round of negotiations, while the players splintered. One union coup led to another, which led to another, which finally led to the hiring of Fehr in December 2010.

“You have to stick together,” Allen said. “It’s hard in the sense there’s 700 and some guys in our membership. The league is 30 owners and very strict rules if they speak out, there’s a big fine. It’s hard. 700 guys, and everyone’s in a different situation. The owners are in for the long term. It’s hard. I think we hopefully learned to stick together and keep our mouths shut as long as possible.”

That lesson was not lost on the players, but neither was the damage done by missing an entire season. Both sides still feel the sting of the lockout, seven years later. No one wants to see another one.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, twitter.com/LukeDeCock or 919-829-8947

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