Things are about to get real for the NHLPA.
“Don’t have any real progress to report, as a matter of fact, no progress was made,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly indicated to NHL.com on Tuesday regarding a resolution of the lockout over the weekend. And with that, a black cloud has placed itself directly over the start of the NHL season. Making matters worse, Daly indicated that no further talks were planned, only saying, “If it makes sense to meet, we’ll meet.”
The NHL canceled all preseason games in two chunks, and with the no end in site for the lockout, the league has to be weighing its options as to how and when to begin to canceling regular-season games. You know, the ones that players actually get paid to compete in.
The NHL has a few options in terms of how it can carry out the cancellation of regular-season games. It can take the approach it did when it scrapped the preseason games and drop games in two-week blocks, an approach that Elliotte Friedman of Hockey Night in Canada seems to think will happen:
NHL teams preparing for regular-season cancellations this week. Expectations games will be erased in two-week "blocks."— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) October 1, 2012
Or, the league can be much more aggressive in its approach and cancel large chunks of games—perhaps one month or more at a time—and that’s the approach that Chris Botta of the Sports Business Journal floated as a possibility:
I expect NHL to cancel games in the next 24 hours. Contrary to some reports, league might not go easy.— Chris Botta (@ChrisBottaNHL) October 2, 2012
Looking at the two options, the latter is obviously the hard-line stance, and it would not surprise me one bit if that was the one that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL owners choose to take. When the NHL canceled the preseason games, the people losing money were the owners, so it made sense for them to take small bites of that pie.
How much NHL hockey will we see in 2012-13?
With the approach of the regular season, the NHL has the opportunity to really test the mettle of the players. If it cancels all the games from the season opener on Oct. 11 through Nov. 30, or worse, Dec. 31, it will cost the players a huge chunk of change, testing their solidarity and sending a clear message on who holds the power in the current landscape.
The NHLPA has said all the right things so far, but the reality is that the players haven’t lost any money yet. None of them have missed a paycheck. If the NHL plays hardball and cancels all the games until Dec. 31, that’s a healthy amount of income ripped from the players' bank accounts—money that they will never see again.
The loss of income will be a test for the NHLPA. Some players will dig their heels in even more, while others will take a wait-and-see approach. And still, others will begin to worry about what the loss of income will mean to their current and future livelihood. A player like Ilya Kovalchuk will be fine, but the players making the league minimum or those with a tenuous grasp on a spot on an NHL roster will start to wonder if it’s worth it to play the game that the NHLPA is playing.
Once the paychecks stop, reality sets in; up until now, it’s just been posturing and posing.
You could argue that the owners will lose money as well, and you’d be correct, but these men are mostly wealthy in spite of owning an NHL team—not because they own an NHL team. The old jazz musician one-liner may also apply to NHL ownership: “How do you become a millionaire playing jazz? Start with three million.” The owners know that they can sit out a season or more and be fine, but do the players have that luxury? Ownership money will always be there; NHL careers are short and fleeting, and even a single season can make a huge difference in the life of a fringe NHL player.
I hate to say this, but I think Botta is correct. The NHL is going to come after the NHLPA hard when it starts canceling games. Like I said, it’s about to get real for the players in ways that many probably never expected.