DeCock: Dark times for NHL, but hope may be around corner

Amid animosity, despair, two sides not far apart

ldecock@newsobserver.comDecember 11, 2012 

Another chunk of the schedule, gone. For 20 more days, the Carolina Hurricanes are guaranteed not to be playing games. The NHL lockout has now wiped out more than 40 percent of the season a mere eight years after another lockout took the entire 2004-05 season off the books.

It’s a depressing day for hockey fans, particularly after all the false hopes raised by last week’s negotiations in New York, when a few days of what seemed like progress were nullified in an hour’s worth of theater of the absurd – the NHL rejecting an NHL Players Association proposal by voice mail in the middle of an NHLPA press conference Thursday night, NHLPA boss Donald Fehr declaring a settlement close at hand only to be mocked by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman later that night.

It was disheartening stuff, particularly after direct discussions between players and moderate owners appeared to yield progress that had not been forthcoming between Bettman and Fehr and their lawyerly minions.

The Winter Classic vanished into the ether long ago, as did the Hurricanes’ much-anticipated Opening Night debuts of Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin. Throw in last week’s fiasco on ice and it’s hard to blame hockey fans for losing hope.

They’ve seen this movie before. They know how it ends.

Yet these dark moments may be the cloud that hides the rising sun. Theatrics and rhetoric aside, the two sides are closer to an agreement now than they have ever been. At this point, they are separated less by finances and contract terms than they are by philosophy.

The NHL’s entire strategy appears to have been designed to discredit Fehr and sow discontent within the union. That hasn’t happened – in fact, players were surprised to find they knew more about the NHL’s position than some of the moderate owners who joined the talks last week.

“It became obvious that the guys they brought in had nowhere near a complete understanding of what the proposals were and where we were in the negotiations,” Los Angeles Kings forward and Raleigh resident Kevin Westgarth, one of the NHLPA’s most active members, told the New York Times.

The NHLPA’s goal at this point is really peace with honor, salvaging enough from these negotiations to make it worthwhile. That may happen at the bargaining table. It may happen through decertification, which would essentially dissolve the union and create the threat of antitrust lawsuits against the NHL. (That’s how the NBA’s union forced a settlement last fall with a previously intransigent NBA.)

There’s too much at stake here to let egos and agendas get in the way. The NHL may not be a $3.3 billion business any more – this lockout has surely taken care of that – but there are still billions of dollars on the table, waiting to be split between owners and players. Even a partial season will salvage some of that while preserving corporate sponsorships, TV packages, naming-rights deals and season-ticket bases, the economic engines of the league.

These are dark times for hockey fans. Hope is hard to find, optimism even harder. There’s still time, though – time to play half a season starting in January, time to move the incremental distance to common ground, time to stop this foolishness and get the NHL back on the ice.

The situation has never looked more grim. The solution has never been closer at hand.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, Twitter: @LukeDeCock, (919) 829-8947

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