The specter of a work stoppage in the NHL has been hanging over the sport of hockey for nearly a year.
With each passing day, the idea of the NHL and the NHL Players' Association coming to an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement prior to Sept. 15 seems less likely.
Donald Fehr, the head of the NHLPA, says there is nothing magical about that date. He has said that if there is no formal agreement by Sept. 15, the two sides could continue to negotiate while working under the terms of the previous CBA.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman prefers that an agreement is reached by that date (source: CBC.ca). He has not threatened a lockout, but he has not ruled it out either. He may not want to give away his position because he doesn't want to weaken his negotiating stance.
The current round of talks between the NHL and NHLPA appear to have a certain maturity to them that has rarely been seen when a potential work stoppage seemed imminent. Both sides have been damaged by work stoppages in the past, and Fehr has been through the wars many times during his tenure with the Major League Baseball Players' Association.
As a result, both sides seem to know that angry rhetoric and name calling will not serve any positive purpose when it comes to negotiating.
That's a good thing. However, the NHL has a painful track record when it comes to labor negotiations and work stoppages. The NHL lost the 2004-05 season when owners locked the players out of the league. The owners were fighting to get costs under control so they could make money with their product.
The NHL is asking its players for significant concessions. The biggest and most significant concession is a 24 percent rollback in salary that would result in $450 million less being paid to the players (source: TSN.ca).
If the 24 percent figure seems familiar, that's the percentage the league reduced players' salaries by when the last agreement was reached following the disastrous 2004-05 lockout (source: Yahoo.com).
These circumstances would make it difficult to come down on the sides of the owners. Revenues have gone up dramatically and while the league's television revenues don't compare with those of the NFL, Major League Baseball or the NBA, they are significantly higher than they were at the time of the last work stoppage.
Despite those increases, the league says several teams are still losing money. The league's elite franchises are making a profit, but the league's "poorer" teams are not making money.
That would suggest that Fehr and the NHLPA will propose a redistribution of wealth during the negotiations. New ways of revenue sharing that would lessen the richer teams' profits while allowing the other teams to make money and stay competitive.
That would seem to be a more reasonable situation than taking money away from the players for the second straight contract.
The NHLPA has not threatened the NHL with a strike and is not likely to. However, it must make the next move by offering the NHL a counterproposal. Fehr has been meeting with NHL players to get their input before he comes back to the negotiating table with a hard offer (source: TSN.ca).
The hockey world is waiting breathlessly to see the specifics of the counterproposal. If Bettman and the NHL owners don't like it, the question will be whether they take it in stride or whether they act with angry rhetoric.
If they condemn the proposal, a work stoppage may indeed be in the offing.
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