<
>
Insider

For players, owners, test of will begins

9/14/2012
Clock's ticking: Who will blink first in the CBA talks? Chris Young/AP Photo/The Canadian Press

Thursday's proceedings confirmed the inevitable. A lockout is coming. Gary Bettman made a point of mentioning that the owners are unanimous in their stance; they will not extend the current CBA beyond Saturday's deadline. In case there was any doubt, a vote was taken during Thursday's board of governors meeting.

The players were even more public with their display of unanimity. They put their preseason training on pause, 283 men in all, to show up in New York and throw their support behind NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr.

Both sides are united, both sides are entrenched. Right now.

Whether there will be a lockout is only a matter of timing. The league has every intention of locking the doors at 11:59 p.m. Saturday.

After addressing reporters in New York on Thursday, Bettman's final words echoed how grim the news was this week.

"Hope to see you all soon," he said. "And I hope it's with better news next time."

Now the question becomes this: When will that good news occur? When will this lockout end?

We've all asked for predictions. Tried to set an over/under. It's an exercise in which those most informed aren't eager to participate because they simply don't know.

The previous lockout lasted an entire season, and as much as optimists don't want to believe it, those who know the dynamics of NHL ownership and the commissioner warn not to rule out that possibility.

"I would assume Gary is still being Gary. He's gone through this once. He did what no one had ever done before," a former NHL governor said. "He has the playbook."

Implementing that playbook is a legitimate fear of the players.

"That's something we've been through in '04," Red Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg said earlier this week. "Nothing good comes out of that. Not for the players, not for the fans, not for the teams. It shouldn't come to that. It's not that bad. The situation in the league is not that bad."

That's the big difference between this lockout and the previous lockout. Things truly are not as bad. The game is in a good place. The league is enjoying record revenues and actually had momentum in the competitive sports universe until this impending lockout slammed the brakes.

As of right now, the players aren't asking to do away with the salary cap. As of right now, the owners aren't attacking guaranteed contracts. There may be a gap of hundreds of millions in how to split the revenue, but at least there is a workable framework.

"We've had seven years of incredible competitive balance -- 29 clubs have made the playoffs. We've had seven different Stanley Cup champions. The game on the ice has never been better. That's a function of this system," Bettman said. "The system needs adjustments."

And that adjustment is simple, from the owners' and Bettman's perspective: "We believe as a league, we're paying out too much."

Spin and rhetoric aside, the only thing casual fans care about is when this will be concluded. When should those fans pay attention again? Passionate hockey fans hope that answer isn't so late that the damage to the sport they love is beyond repair.

For indications of a lockout timeline, you look for reasons why one side or the other would feel moved to ease out of the trenches both are in right now.

Bettman mentioned the unanimous owners' vote to show just how united the 30 teams are right now, and maintaining that unity is one of his strengths. One former owner was always impressed with just how well Bettman communicated his message among all of the teams during the previous CBA negotiation.

"My phone would ring randomly it seemed like once a week for a very long period of time. He would be calling me to update me on the negotiations, provide me on insights to the league's strategy," he said. "A call could last three minutes or it could last an hour. I assume he was doing the same thing with everybody else. He built up a lot of street cred with me, certainly. It enabled him to lead from the front and not allow a faction of owners or another faction to take over the room."

But there will be pressure as the lockout drags on. It's natural that owners at the bottom of the league in revenues would be intrigued by the players' proposals of a more robust revenue-sharing model.

Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist suggested as much during a conversation with reporters Thursday in New York.

"I'm not sure all the owners are on the same page," Lundqvist said. "I wouldn't be surprised if the offer we gave them, if there was not a few guys that said, 'I really like that.' "

And there are owners who have put their teams in position to win this year. There are some teams that have made a splash during the offseason or this past spring that would lose all of the positive momentum gained.

"There's huge pressure," a former alternate governor said. "If you're in Minnesota, you want to be back to work. Go right down the list -- New York, Los Angeles."

But, he points out, that pressure works both ways.

"Right now, there are 25 or 26 teams with players going into camp thinking they can win the Stanley Cup this year," he said. "When you have that many players that hungry because they have a team that can win, it's pressure."

The consensus is that the players have more to lose in the short term. And that's what they're being told. They're the ones who start missing paychecks a couple of weeks into the season. They are the ones who immediately see games eliminated from their career they won't ever get back.

There won't be a massive shift in leverage. It will change as the lockout extends into months.

"Longer run, it gets to be different," one longtime agent said. "The rubber doesn't hit the road for the owners until we're into December, January and February."

If it gets to February, the year is all but lost.

Is it worth it for the players to dig in until it really hurts the owners? Are they prepared to do so?

When the NBA players were faced with a similar position in October 2011, former NHL forward Bill Guerin warned them that it wasn't. He was part of the free-agent class that cashed in huge during summer 2002, signing a five-year deal worth $45 million with the Stars. That same offseason, goalie Curtis Joseph signed a three-year deal with the Red Wings worth $8 million per season, and forward Bobby Holik a five-year deal worth $45 million with the Rangers. Missing the 2004-05 season cost Guerin $9 million.

"Get a deal done," he advised NBA players during an interview last fall with the Star-Telegram of Forth Worth. "I learned a big lesson: It's not a partnership. It's their league and you are going to play when they want."

Guerin may never have fully received the benefits of his sacrifice. But it could be argued that players such as Ryan Suter and Zach Parise did.

Players might find that extra resolve if they're convinced the fight and sacrifice is for the larger good. And perhaps because they owe players from previous lockouts as much. Had Guerin and the NHLPA not fought as hard for the current system, even if it meant major concessions from a CBA they much preferred, salaries may not have worked back up to the totals we've seen given out during free agency.

"I know it looked horrendous, you lost a season's salary," the agent of the last lockout said. "If you're still playing today and if you measured yourself against the initial offer the league made -- let's say it was six years with a $39 million flat cap all along. You have to think, 'Here's what you would have made based on the hard cap and instead here's what you made in the interim.' That's a big difference. Whoever was in his last year in '04-05 paid a big price for you so you could do that. It's your turn now."

There's a lot for both sides to weigh, and the reality is that there's still time to weigh it. Yes, the lockout kicks in on Saturday, but no training camps have been canceled. The league won't start canceling exhibition games until next week, according to colleague ESPN.com writer Pierre LeBrun. And really, there aren't many players who will be heartbroken over a canceled exhibition season.

There's still time. Time for real negotiations that don't include modest changes from an initial offer that was never going to be accepted in the first place.

Saturday's deadline is a formality. With any luck, it'll be more of a start than an end to the CBA talks.

"Maybe that pushes a little bit of something," a team executive said. "I've always said this whole time, I don't think we're going to get juice until the end of the month or the first part of October ... Once you start rolling up on missing a paycheck or missing a gate, now it's a lockout. That affects business. Let's just wait."