DeCock: NHL lockout timeline coming into focus

ldecock@newsobserver.com September 5, 2012 

  • THE LAST TIME AROUND Sept. 9, 2004 – In the last negotiating session before the expiration of the CBA, players and owners meet along with their negotiators in Toronto. Sept. 15, 2004 – The CBA expires. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announces the owners will lock out the players and cancels all preseason and regular-season games through Oct. 15. No further negotiations are scheduled. Sept. 22, 2004 – Speaking at a media event for the junior-hockey team he owns in Michigan, Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos said he’s more than willing to sit out the entire season. “I don’t particularly care,” Karmanos told the Detroit Free Press. “The losses are going to stop.” Karmanos was fined for violating an NHL gag order on owners. Oct. 14, 2004 – Instead of what would have been the Hurricanes’ home opener against the Atlanta Thrashers, Bettman joins Karmanos at the RBC Center for a town-hall meeting with fans and spends 90 minutes answering questions. Nov. 3, 2004 – The NHL cancels the All-Star Game, scheduled for Feb. 13, 2005, in Atlanta. Dec. 9, 2004 – Owners and players meet in Toronto for the first time in three months. The union offers to take a 24 percent pay cut and other concessions in lieu of a salary cap. Dec. 11, 2004 – The Hurricanes bring nine buses of fans to Norfolk, Va., to watch Eric Staal and Cam Ward play in the AHL for the Lowell Lock Monsters. The game is marred by a massive brawl that included players fighting coaches, goalies fighting goalies and an official suffering a broken leg. Dec. 14, 2004 – The NHL responds with a counter-offer that essentially adds a salary cap to the union’s pay cut and concessions. The union rejects the proposal. Dec. 16, 2004 – The handful of Hurricanes players that had continued to skate at the RecZone practice rink cancel the ice time. Jan. 11, 2005 – Karmanos tells the Canadian Press “my gut feeling is that this season’s gone.” He was fined again and would later be removed from the NHL’s executive committee Jan. 19, 2005 – NHLPA president Trevor Linden of the Vancouver Canucks initiates small-group meetings without Bettman or NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow. After two days, the sides part again. Feb. 4, 2005 – Two days of top-level meetings yield no progress. Feb. 10, 2005 – The two sides meet for two days in Toronto, but the NHL’s chief negotiator calls the talks “pointless.” Feb. 15, 2005 – The NHL gag order lifted, Karmanos said the owners are willing to sit out the rest of this season and even two more to get the system they want. Progress appears to be made at the very last minute when the NHLPA agrees to accept a cap, but the sides remain $6.5 million apart. Feb. 16, 2005 – Bettman announces the cancellation of the remainder of the season. July 13, 2005 – The two sides reach agreement on a tentative deal that includes a salary cap set at 54 percent of leaguewide revenue and a 24 percent rollback in salaries. July 21, 2005 – The players vote to approve the agreement and the NHL is officially back in business. “I think I speak for most of us that we won’t really get to know the agreement for three or four years,” Goodenow said. “When that happens, history will speak whether it’s a good deal for both sides or not.” – Luke DeCock

The exchange of proposals between the NHL and NHL Players Association this week is a positive sign – at least they’re talking – but the two sides remain far apart. If the NHL is headed for another lockout – a the third in 18 years, eight years after an entire season was lost – the timeline for the winter is starting to come into focus.

The current collective bargaining agreement with the NHLPA expires on Sept. 15, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has indicated the league will lock out the players rather than continue to play under the old agreement.

There are many issues being debated, from contract lengths to revenue-sharing among teams to participation in the Olympics, but the essential disagreement is over what share of league revenue goes to the players. For the last eight years, that figure has been 57 percent. The owners’ first proposal set that at 46 percent – 43 percent, by the union’s estimation. Eventually, they’ll settle somewhere in the middle.

Based on the fall of 2004, here’s what is likely to happen next if there is no agreement in the next two weeks:

The Hurricanes are scheduled to open training camp on Sept. 22. Along with the announcement that the league has locked out the players, the league will announce the cancellation of training camps, some or all preseason games and possibly regular-season games as well.

If the same protocol applies as eight years ago, NHL players who don’t need to clear waivers to go to the minors will be assigned to the AHL. Last time around, that included Eric Staal and Cam Ward. This time, it might include Justin Faulk, Jeff Skinner and Jeremy Welsh (if he signs before Sept. 15; he’s a restricted free agent). Some NHL players will sign temporary deals in Europe.

A deal could happen at any point, but there are two key pressure points that could drive compromise. One is Opening Night on Oct. 11. Both sides would benefit if the season starts on time. To realistically start on Opening Night, teams would need at least two weeks of training camp. So a deal would have to be reached, in principle at least, by about Sept. 23. (In 2004, Bettman wiped out Opening Night when he announced the lockout on Sept. 15, but the mood was far less conciliatory then.)

After that, with the owners once again geared down for the long haul, the next potential deadline is the Winter Classic, this year to be played by the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs at Michigan Stadium. While the NHL is guaranteed its U.S. TV money from NBC during the lockout – giving the owners a reason not to settle quickly – it won’t want to give up the exposure of the popular Jan. 1 game that has crossover appeal in the United States.

For the season to begin on Jan. 1, two weeks of training camp would be necessary, at the minimum; that makes Dec. 15 the deadline for a deal – and if we get that far, the moment when the entire season will hang in the balance. In 1994-95, a deal was reached on Jan. 11, in time to play a compressed 48-game season starting nine days later.

The owners broke that time, giving up on a salary cap to save the season. Ten years later, the owners held firm and the players finally agreed to a deal in July that included a salary cap. This time around, neither side seems inclined to budge – the owners, having learned they can sit out an entire season and still win; the players, who feel like they gave the owners everything they wanted last time and are now being asked to give up more.

Once the Winter Classic is lost, there’s really no reason for the owners not to pull the plug on the rest of the season. They’ve shown before they’re willing to use that threat as leverage, and as Bettman said last week, “We recovered well last time because we have the world’s greatest fans.”

luke.decock@newsobserver.com, Twitter: @LukeDeCock, (919) 829-8947

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