Barring an 11th-hour deal, the NHL is set to lockout the players when the current pact expires at 12:01 a.m. on Sunday. The length of the lockout is dependent on many factors. While there are signs for optimism, there are also factors in this labour dispute that could cost the NHL its season.
1. Sides not far apart: Whereas the 2004-05 lockout was about reforming the league’s revenue structure, this one is about carving up an ever-growing revenue pie. As deputy NHL commissioner Bill Daly said this week, it’s a much easier discussion this time.
2. One issue: According to league sources, a favourable revenue split is really the only must-have for commissioner Gary Bettman. It’s a big issue, but resolvable, and from there the rest should be easy enough to hammer out.
3. Financial incentives to get a deal before Christmas: On the owner side, broadcaster HBO has set a mid-December deadline to do its annual behind-the-scenes series, and with baseball over and the NFL winding down, it’s the time when viewership numbers start to grow. Also, missing a season would tack on a bonus year to the NHL’s television deal with NBC with zero rights fees. On the player side, stretching much beyond December means the financial losses will outweigh the concessions the league was seeking.
4. Players want to play: NHLPA head Donald Fehr has a mandate to get a deal done, and there is a strong desire on the part of the players to get back to business. They won’t willingly make major concessions, but they are prepared to negotiate.
5. No hard feelings yet: Despite the posturing on both sides, there are no indications that the personal relationship between the NHL commissioner and the union head has been poisoned, as was the case last time out. That can change, but both Bettman and Fehr are pros at this sort of thing. This is business, not personal.
Five reasons the NHL lockout will result in a lost season
1. Recent history: The NHL owners will look at recent conflicts in the NFL and NBA, in which ownership was able to extract hefty concessions from the players and set an owner-friendly revenue split, and think “why not hockey too?” The NHLPA will look at those same negotiations and say “we can’t let that happen to us, plus we gave last time.”
2. Union solidarity: Fehr has done a meticulous job over the past 18 months of preparing the players for a work stoppage, and his support is rock solid. The players are educated, and after giving up a lot in the last negotiation, are determined not to be worked over again lest it set a precedent.
3. Owner solidarity: Bettman is very adept at keeping the owners in line and his plan to cut into the players’ share to balance revenues among rich and poor teams is a clever solution to bridge competing interests. That some of the owners are ideologically opposed to unions helps carry the hard line, and some poorer teams are perfectly happy not to have to shell out player salaries. And everyone is happy not to have to prop up the Coyotes.
4. Personalities: Bettman, a former hard-nosed litigator, favours aggressive legal tactics and has never been known to back down from a confrontation. Fehr has a long track record of not blinking in labour disputes, and doesn’t intimidate easily, if at all. These are not men who will be cowed into caving in.
5. Legal manoeuvring: The NHLPA has already filed labour-relations board applications in three Canadian provinces, and there will be a slew of courtroom tactics deployed in the coming weeks, which will only heighten the emotions on both sides and create bad blood.