Think of the negotiations between the NHL and National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) as a typical Meg Ryan rom-com. You know how it’s going to turn out in the end: some version of happily-ever-after, the two people putting aside all the turmoil and angst that had existed between them to forge a relationship that, for better or worse, will (hopefully) last a good long time.
The films start out the same way, too: with vitriol, dislike, rancour, friction – and no real sense that Meg or her romantic lead could ever, under any circumstance, find any common ground.
Sound familiar? The league and the players are in the first few frames of that movie right now, just as the credits have finished rolling. At this juncture, their eyes can’t even meet across the coffee shop without one or the other stomping out of the room in a huff.
The problem in any labour negotiation is finding that moment in time when both sides are genuinely motivated to reach an agreement. Sadly, the NHL and players association are nowhere near that point yet, with the current collective agreement set to expire on Sept. 15 and training camps for the 2012-13 season scheduled to start a few days later.
The game is still in the early stages, which are all about posturing, patience and the ability to wait out your opponent.
And when you have stubborn, experienced, hard-headed negotiators such as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr locking horns, it is hard to see either side making any meaningful concessions any time soon.
Accordingly, nothing that has happened through a lost summer of limited give-and-take should surprise anyone. The NHL’s first offer wasn’t even a genuine offer. It was a wish list. Presumably, everybody knew that, too.
The NHLPA response, two weeks later, was just as underwhelming. No rollbacks, no pay cuts, just a suggestion the league do more revenue sharing. The players would also limit future payroll increases, to help the owners protect themselves from their own worst enemies – themselves.
They proposed a completely different industry model and you can be sure how well that went over with owners such as Ed Snider and Jeremy Jacobs – somebody telling them how to run their businesses, in an off-season when the teams traditionally looking for handouts (the Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators) overspent wildly on free agents. If the players’ offer was a calculated attempt to bait the ownership side, it worked swimmingly well.
Weeks later, the NHL inched a little closer to the middle with its second offer, which the NHLPA dismissed out of hand.
Now, they’re at a predictable stalemate, the talks stalled while leverage, for the moment, rests mostly with the players. Training camps do little to enhance their financial position. They receive a stipend for attending, nothing more. NHL owners, meanwhile, can bank significant revenues from exhibition games, which are usually included in the price of a season ticket. It is a windfall period for them.
Leverage will shift on or about Oct. 11, when the regular season would start, and players start earning their salaries. At that point, the players will have something tangible to lose. Every pay period that passes with no games played is money lost forever.
Moreover, a percentage of owners in non-traditional markets care far less about their home dates in October and November than they do later in the season because they’re frequently playing second fiddle to other sports – U.S. college football, the NFL, baseball playoffs – in their cities anyway.
Usually, both sides need to endure a little pain before they can get into the proper negotiating frame of mind. And at some stage – late December, early January – they’ll eventually come to that point of no return where, if the two sides cannot forge a deal, the season will be lost.
Last year, the NBA locked its players out on July 1 and started cancelling games on Oct. 10. Altogether, they eliminated blocks of games three times. At the witching hour – Nov. 26 – the two sides came up with a tentative agreement and on Dec. 8 the lockout was officially lifted. A schedule of 66 games (as opposed to 82) opened on Christmas Day.
If you want a rough template for how the timing of an NHL lockout will play out, that’s probably a pretty close approximation.
All that’s really left to determine before the two sides eventually kiss and make up is the running time. Will it be manageable, as if Rob Reiner or Ron Howard were directing, in which case it will be three months or less and the season can be salvaged?
Or something imponderably lengthy, like Warren Beatty behind the camera in Reds, in which case you better start shopping for alternative hockey programming this winter.