Commentary

DeCock: Eight years later, another lockout of uncertain duration

ldecock@newsobserver.com September 16, 2012 

There was only silence Saturday as the midnight deadline approached, no talks, no movement between the NHL and the players’ union. Quietly, a lockout once again descended on the sport.

Only eight years after the NHL lost an entire season to labor strife, it never should have come to this. Not again.

On this day eight years ago, I feared, but firmly believed, the NHL’s owners had no intention whatsoever of playing the season. They had been preparing for a long time, putting money aside. The Carolina Hurricanes even laid off a good chunk of its staff in the spring, in expectation of a lean winter. It served the NHL’s purposes to sit out, wipe out a whole year of bloated contracts and garner as much leverage as possible against the NHL Players’ Association.

When Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos said back then he was ready to sit out as many years as necessary, he wasn’t lying. That was the plan from the start, that’s exactly what happened, and the owners got just about everything they wanted from the NHLPA when the time came.

Eight years later, the owners want more. The deal they thought they so shrewdly crafted turned out to be full of loopholes. Instead of acknowledging they may have screwed up, they’re ready to put the hammer down on the players yet again.

They want to devalue contracts already in force, cut the players’ share of revenue and impose severe restrictions on contracts and free agency.

The players will end up agreeing to some of that, but they’re stuck on not giving back money from contracts they’ve already signed – and why wouldn’t they? The owners have been on a signing binge this summer, re-signing players and adding free agents left and right, presumably not so cynically that they would offer deals they have no intention of paying in full.

This time around, I don’t believe the owners want to sit out a full year again. They’re certainly not acting like it. The Hurricanes haven’t laid anyone off this time, while the salary-tracking website capgeek.com calculated teams handed out more than $339 million in contracts over the past month heading into Saturday’s deadline.

It’s a positive sign. Eight years ago, the free-agent market was quiet. No one wanted to carry contracts into a new era, because at that time no one knew what it would look like. As that new era become the old era Saturday, there was no such reticence.

Maybe that means Opening Night can yet be saved, or perhaps the Winter Classic. There just isn’t the same sense that the owners are ready to shut it down for the whole season, not with $3.3 billion ringing the cash registers last year.

The framework of a deal can even be seen on the horizon, hazy as a mirage. If the owners would agree to honor all current contracts and phase in a gradual reduction of the players’ share from the current 57 percent to about 50 percent, the ancillary issues would fall into place – revenue sharing, contracts, the Olympics and all the rest.

Owners would have every incentive to grow revenue, because the sooner they get 50 percent of revenue above where the cap is now, the more they’ll keep for themselves. Players would get the full value of contracts they thought were offered in good faith. And the game would go on.

It may take a while to get there. The owners are driving a pretty hard bargain as they try to rewrite a deal they basically wrote eight years ago. Whether they’ll go as far again to do it, only they know.

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

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