The NHL lockout has claimed its first regular-season games.
And now the only question is how many more will vanish before the two sides finally sit down and hammer out a compromise.
The league pushed the opening of the 2012-13 season back two weeks on Thursday afternoon, stating in a release that NHL rinks would continue to remain dark until at least Oct. 25.
The move wipes out 82 games (or nearly 7 per cent) of the 1,230-game season, although it remains possible those lost games are added to the end of the schedule once a deal is ultimately worked out.
The likelihood of the league and the NHL Players’ Association coming to an agreement anytime soon, however, is very low, as the two sides haven’t engaged in productive bargaining sessions in weeks.
“It’s unfortunate that it’s come to cancelling regular-season games,” St. Louis Blues captain David Backes said after the announcement came down. “We were hoping that $900-million in concessions would be enough for a league with record growth and record revenue. Since it isn’t, it might be a while .”
The NHL had previously cancelled its entire preseason due to the labour stoppage in a move that deputy commissioner Bill Daly said cost the league $100-million.
On Thursday, he released a statement saying the league was “committed to getting this done.”
“We were extremely disappointed to have to make today’s announcement,” Daly said. “The game deserves better, the fans deserve better and the people who derive income from their connection to the NHL deserve better.
“We remain committed to doing everything in our power to forge an agreement that is fair to the players, fair to the teams and good for our fans. This is not about winning or losing a negotiation. This is about finding a solution that preserves the long-term health and stability of the league and the game.”
NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr’s response, however, put the blame for cancelled games squarely on commissioner Gary Bettman and the 29 owners.
“The decision to cancel the first two weeks of the NHL season is the unilateral choice of the NHL owners,” Fehr said. “If the owners truly cared about the game and the fans, they would lift the lockout and allow the season to begin on time while negotiations continue. A lockout should be the last resort in bargaining, not the strategy of first resort. For nearly 20 years, the owners have elected to lockout the players in an effort to secure massive concessions.”
“This seems to be our commissioner’s bread and butter,” Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews added. “It’s almost like he is excited to take away hockey from the fans and the players just because he can. I still haven’t heard a valid argument from the league for what they are doing, just that they want more and last time it wasn’t enough.
“If they would be as determined to solve these [financial] issues as they are quick to point the finger at the players, this would be settled by now. But they aren’t, and now we know well miss at least two weeks because of it.”
The NHL’s current lockout comes just eight years after it missed a full season to a similar labour stoppage, one that was finally resolved with the imposition of a hard salary cap and the crumbling of the players’ union.
Since that point, league revenues and player salaries have skyrocketed, with the NHL’s 30 teams generating just shy of $3.3-billion last season – up 50 per cent from roughly $2.15-billion prior to the 2004-05 lockout.
The dispute this time around is centred much more around the bottom line. Under the previous collective agreement, which expired Sept. 15, players were receiving 57 per cent of what was determined to be hockey-related revenue.
The NHL’s current proposal would see that share cut to 49 per cent in Year 1 and then down to 47 by Year 3. It would then remain at 47 per cent for the remaining four years of the six-year agreement.
The NHLPA, meanwhile, is offering concessions on future revenues that would see the players’ share drop into the 52 per cent range over time as the league continued to grow revenues at a projected rate of 7 per cent a season.
The main sticking point at the moment is that players want to be paid the full value of their contracts for the coming season. An immediate reduction of their share to 49 per cent would likely mean a pay cut of between 8 and 14 per cent.
In all, the league and union are fighting over a difference of between $1-billion and $1.2-billion over the next five years, an amount that could ultimately be lost anyway if they miss a half season or more.
“The players remain committed to playing hockey while the parties work to reach a deal that is fair for both sides,” Fehr said. “We hope we will soon have a willing negotiating partner.”
With no end in sight to the disagreement, players have continued to flock to European teams the past few weeks to earn a small fraction of their NHL salaries.
Others simply expressed their disappointment on Thursday to fans on social media.
“Feels like I’m going to practice without a purpose, and I hate it!” New York Rangers netminder Henrik Lunqvist wrote on Twitter. “Don and Gary, let’s figure this one out!”