Lockout -- NHL hits deadline, puts start of season in doubt

Visions of 2004 mean entire season lost; no talks held Saturday

calexander@newsobserver.comSeptember 16, 2012 

The Carolina Hurricanes made offseason moves and committed millions of dollars in hopes of improving their team and reaching the Stanley Cup playoffs this season.

But there’s no way of knowing when the Hurricanes – or any National Hockey League team – will take the ice.

The league's Collective Bargaining Agreement expired at 11:59 p.m. Saturday. With no new CBA in place, the league enforced a lockout of the players, leaving the start of the 2012-2013 season in doubt and games at risk, and perhaps the entire season in jeopardy.

In 2004, an inability to reach agreement on a CBA led to a lockout, a loss of games and eventually the cancellation of the season. That’s the doomsday scenario no one wants to see play out again but can’t rule out.

On Saturday, the Canes assigned 28 players to the Charlotte Checkers, their American Hockey League affiliate, including forward Jeff Skinner and defenseman Justin Faulk. Other NHL teams did the same, gearing up for the lockout.

Donald Fehr, executive director of the NHL Players Association, said this past week that a lockout was a “choice” being made by the NHL, not a requirement, adding the union was willing to play under the old CBA while continuing to negotiate a new one. But NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said that would not be case, that he had the unanimous support of the NHL’s owners to enforce a lockout.

There were no CBA negotiations Saturday, with both sides pointing fingers. Bill Daly, deputy commissioner of the NHL, said the union had “nothing new to offer.”

Both sides gathered in New York this past week in what amounted to a standoff. Fehr huddled with more than 280 players in a pair of NHLPA meetings while Bettman conducted a planned NHL board of governors meeting.

“The league is not willing to move forward with another season under the status quo,” Bettman said after the meeting.

The “status quo” was a CBA, signed in 2005, in which the players were receiving 57 percent of the league’s annual hockey-related revenue (HRR). The NHL’s latest proposal was a reduction of that share to 47 percent over the course of a six-year CBA.

With the league generating $3.3 billion last season, the players’ share was more than $1.86 billion. The union is opposed to any proposal that would result in a rollback in salary, instead proposing small increases in salary the first three years – two percent in the first year – in a five-year CBA.

“We can’t give up that big a percentage of the revenues,” Hurricanes forward Jiri Tlusty said this past week.

There are other CBA issues to be resolved, including length of contracts, years of service to determine free agency, and league-wide revenue sharing. The union is seeking more significant revenue-sharing to help teams that are struggling financially.

But both sides agreed the core economic issue – the division of HRR – had to first be settled.

In 2004, the league’s owners were insistent in implementing a hard salary cap in a new CBA. After a bitter battle, the owners got their salary cap and the players accepted a 24 percent salary rollback.

With a lockout in place, players are prohibited from using any facilities owned or operated by NHL teams. Several Hurricanes players have been using the Canes’ locker-room complex in Raleigh Center Ice for their informal skates the past few weeks, but that’s off-limits during a lockout.

The NHL season is due to begin Oct. 11 and preseason training camps were to open next weekend. The Canes were scheduled to play their first preseason exhibition game Sept. 26 against the Columbus Blue Jackets and open the season Oct. 13 with a road game against the Winnipeg Jets.

In preparing for a lockout, NHL teams began placing players on waivers late in the week and making AHL assignments. The NHL lockout will not affect the playing of the AHL season.

Skinner and Faulk, two of the Canes’ best young stars, now are eligible to play for the Checkers. It could help in their development, as it did the Canes’ Eric Staal and Cam Ward in 2004-2005, when they played in the AHL.

NHL players are not paid any of their salary during a lockout. The NHL will receive $200 million from NBC whether games are played or not.

If a lockout lingers, many NHL players could look to sign and play for Europeans teams. Others may decide to stay put.

“I’ve got a couple of dollars tucked away,” Canes defenseman Joe Corvo said.

As for NHL fans, they can only sit by and wait – anxiously, angrily.

“The fans’ feelings for watching hockey are similar to our feelings for playing hockey,” Hurricanes defenseman Jay Harrison said Friday. “But we have two identities. Yes, we’re passionate about playing, but we also have to make a living and provide for our family and play for a life after hockey.

“Another message to stress to the fans is we’re trying to offer a solution to keep hockey in markets like Carolina..”

Alexander: 919-829-8945

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