One thing is different at the end of the NHL's latest lockout from all the others - neither side is going to rush in to claim victory.
The damage to the game is too great - as much as one third of last season's record $3.3-billion (all currency U.S.) revenue went up in smoke as 510 of this season's 1,230 games were cancelled. The players and owners may be able to salvage $2-billion if they are lucky with a 48- or 50-game season but no one knows how much the lingering anger of fans, corporate sponsors and business partners will cost the NHL in future revenue.
Also, each time the owners thought they had finally put one over on the players in a labour dispute, it wasn't long before salaries kept going up, much to their chagrin. Despite getting their wish for a hard salary cap, which started with a $39-million annual payroll limit in 2005-06, the owners and general managers went to work finding loopholes in their own deal, as they always do in order to sign the best players, and by the end of this season they were looking at a $70-million salary cap until they locked out the players.
Things like the front-loaded contracts that rich teams used to get around the cap, which were a big target for the owners in this lockout, were to be expected. What wasn't expected was the rise of the Canadian dollar to parity with its U.S. counterpart in the last six years, which turned most of the Canadian franchises from penury to pay dirt. That in turn drove up the NHL's overall revenue, taking the salary cap with it and leaving the small-revenue teams gasping for air. There weren't as many of them this time around as in 2004 but enough to give NHL commissioner Gary Bettman a hard line in the negotiations.
Former NHL player Mark Recchi angered many of his former peers a couple of months ago when he criticized them for not folding and cutting a deal with the owners. He said the lost income wasn't worth it for players with short careers.
Recchi also uttered an essential truth about sports labour disputes: "Look at that last deal. We ended up with the [salary] cap and everyone thought it was a bad deal. But it ended up great, right? No matter what the system is, or has been, the players get their money."
But this time you have to wonder. If the fans forgive and forget, yes, salaries will rise along with league revenue even though the players took a cut to 50 per cent of that revenue from 57 per cent in the previous collective agreement. This time, though, there are no guarantees.
While there is no doubt the fans will be back in Canada and in the strong U.S. markets like New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago and Pittsburgh, there are questions in a lot of other places. There was more anger from the fans and sponsors in this lockout because it was so unnecessary, given the NHL's seven consecutive years of record revenue after the 2004-05 lockout.
Who knows if the improvement shown on the ice last season by the Florida Panthers, St. Louis Blues, Dallas Stars and other uncertain markets will still drive a surge at the box office. The owners in those cities were worried about that well before the lockout went past 100 days.
In recent weeks, more than one governor expressed concern the NHL may not survive as a 30-team league because of this.
One reason the lockout was settled is because the owners were not willing to head into the great unknown if the NHL Players' Association exercised its right to dissolve. What awaits the players and owners now may be a little less frightening than anti-trust court fights but it is still scary.