Another day in pro sports' latest labour inanity, another negotiating tactic.
The NHL announced Friday afternoon that all games through the end of November have been cancelled "because of the absence of a Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NHL Players' Association and the NHL."
Bill Daly, the NHL's deputy commissioner said in a statement that "the National Hockey League deeply regrets having to take this action" and called the league's last offer a fair division of revenues.
"We acknowledge and accept that there is joint responsibility in collective bargaining and, though we are profoundly disappointed that a new agreement has not been attained to this point, we remain committed to achieving an agreement that is fair for the Players and the Clubs -- one that will be good for the game and our fans," Daly said.
Players' union boss Donald Fehr called the league's announcement "deeply disappointing" in a statement issued by the NHLPA.
"The message from the owners seems to be: if you don't give us exactly what we want, there is no point in talking. They have shown they are very good at delivering deadlines and demands, but we need a willing partner to negotiate. We hope they return to the table in order to get the players back on the ice soon," he said.
This was not unexpected.
Since the two sides broke off talks last week - the league tabled a new offer then walked out after only summary consideration of a trio of counter-proposals from the union - the conflict has devolved into a waiting game.
And now the owners are trying to turn up the pressure on the players by effectively vowing to wipe out nearly a third of the season.
That’s significant for a couple of reasons, but before getting into them, don’t believe the hype: Thursday’s wasn’t a real deadline, it will still be possible for at least a couple of weeks to squeeze in 82 games plus playoffs between now and Canada Day 2013.
Theoretically, anyway - cancellation is a bit of an empty threat, after all the 'cancelled' games from October could still have been played this season under the league's most recent offer.
There’s an argument to be made that if the league was really trying to strike fear into the union, it would have cancelled a bigger whack of games including the Winter Classic and All-Star Game - expect that to come next, according to ESPN's John Buccigross it could happen as soon as Monday, although the league denies that is the case.
But even if the NHL claims its latest offer - 50/50 revenue split beginning this year - will be yanked from the table, well that just doesn't mean very much, they teach that in the first week of Haggling 101.
The aim here is pretty evident: test the players’ resolve by threatening a shortened season with pro-rated salaries, which would force them to give up roughly the amount of money the league was asking for in terms of salary concessions in its last offer.
Economists call it the law of diminishing returns, and the league wants to steepen the curve.
It’s a reasonable tactic from the NHL’s point of view, but don’t expect the players to blink - certainly not until it actually becomes logistically impossible to play a full season (with 100 per cent salaries).
That won’t be for at least another three weeks.
The league will of course deny that’s the case and emphasize it has already taken a major revenue hit because of games already cancelled - which is, to be polite, a disingenuous argument.
Leaving aside the fact it was the league’s decision to lock out the players, there’s the small matter of already-cashed season ticket cheques, staff cuts in most front offices, and not having to pay any salaries - which are teams’ biggest single expense.
Many people are starting to see parallels between the NHL lockout and the NBA’s last year - which was run on essentially the same legal advice from the law firm that advises the NHL (and which counts both Gary Bettman and NBA commissioner David Stern as former members).
That conflict ended with a shortened season, with a 50/50 split, more money in the owners’ pockets and a cowed union.
But the NBA players hadn’t felt the sting of a lost season just eight years ago - and they weren’t led by Fehr.
Still, this is going to turn into a stiff test of union resolve - as TSN’s Darren Dreger has pointed out, a player like Jarome Iginla is looking at losing $15-million in career earnings if he loses a second season to labour disruption.
If there are Nervous Nellies, we’ll soon start to hear from them.
But the players have been warned what to expect, and make no mistake, they were expecting this. Their strategy, for the moment, appears to be to wait out the owners.
Lest anyone be fooled by the NHL’s rhetoric, there are several franchises that are anxious to have this resolved by Christmas.
Some of the reasons for this are practical; cancelling games is a huge bureaucratic and financial headache, “It is,” said one executive, “a pain in the butt.”
Evidently it’s not a severe enough twinge to nudge the league toward the players’ position - essentially the argument is not about 50/50, but how quickly to get there.
Will be this season, as the owners want, or in year three or four of a new CBA, as the players are advocating?
There’s an obvious middle ground here, but the parties will only seek it out if they’re convinced the other side won’t cave.
They’re not there yet, but they might be on the road.