NHL Cancels More Games: Why Hope Remains for a Partial Season

Dave Ungar@@DaveUngar68Correspondent IIIOctober 22, 2012

Can Dolad Fehr solve the puzzle that is the NHL lockout?
Can Dolad Fehr solve the puzzle that is the NHL lockout?Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Have faith hockey fans—there is still reason to believe we will have a hockey season.

Do things look bleak? Yes.

Is there a real chance we will lose another season to a pretty pointless work stoppage? Absolutely.

Without question, when the NHL canceled games through November 1, 2012 (ESPN), things took a decidedly dark turn.

All the optimism from the NHL's surprising offer to end the lockout if the players would accept a 50-50 split of hockey related revenue (ESPN) faded away like the marine layer on the California coastline at mid-morning.

When the NHL rejected three different counter proposals from the NHLPA—calling each one a "step backward" (ESPN)—the hopes for a full season pretty much went up in smoke and the prospects for any season at all seemed to be teetering on the brink.

Despite all the general feelings of negativity surrounding the prospects of any sort of NHL season, there are still reasons to believe we will have hockey this year.

True, the chances of a full 82-game schedule seem pretty much gone, but the hope for a partial season remain very much intact and here are a few reasons why.

At Least They Are Talking

If one were to compare the present lockout to the unmitigated disaster that was the 2004-05 lockout, there are many reasons to feel good that some sort of season can be salvaged.

A main reason for this is that, even though the two sides are not quite seeing eye to eye, there are multiple, and serious, offers on the table.

With the 2004-05 lockout, the two sides did not even really begin negotiating until early December. Here, we are not even to Halloween and the two sides have made real offers and counteroffers to each other. If nothing else, that has to be considered an encouraging sign.

If we also look at the time line from the 2004-05 lockout as a sort of template to determine just at what point losing the entire season becomes a probability, then the fact the two sides are talking so early in this process becomes even more important.

With the 2004-05 lockout, the season was not truly considered lost until February 15, when Gary Bettman finally made the fateful announcement that the season was being canceled. In reality, it was around the end of January when the prospect of losing the season became no longer unthinkable, but probable.

That essentially gives the two sides, realistically speaking, two and a half months or so for them to iron out their differences and save the season. Of course, if it takes that long, the Winter Classic will be lost, but at least some sort of season can be saved.

Even now, with the two sides seemingly drawing new battle lines, they are at least reaching out to each other. As reported by ESPN yesterday, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly and NHLPA special counsel Steve Fehr at least talked briefly on Saturday.

Today, ESPN reported that the two sides had a conference call.

So the lines of communication are at least still open.

That alone puts the hope for a season in a much better position than eight years ago.

They Are Speaking The Same Language—Sort Of

Another encouraging sign is that the NHL and NHLPA are, more or less, speaking the same language. That is something that really did not happen until the season was already lost eight years ago.

Both sides actually seem to agree on a 50-50 split of hockey-related revenue. Where they remain apart is how to get there.

After the NHL rejected the NHLPA's proposals, ESPN's Pierre LeBrun posted a blog entry discussing why things were not as dire as they were being portrayed. While LeBrun's take on this might be too much of a "glass half-full" approach, he does capture the reality of the situation.

There is a deal to be made here and both sides seem to agree that a 50-50 split of hockey-related revenue is where things will have to come down.

Scott Burnside's commentary is not nearly as positive as LeBrun's. Perhaps taking a more realistic approach, Burnside seems to acknowledge that the two sides might be speaking the same language, but he doubts that either side has the requisite leadership to broker a deal and save the season.

Certainly, if history has taught us anything, Burnside's concerns seem very valid.

Still, the two sides appear much closer to being able to agree than they ever were the last lockout.

When you really break down where we are in the process, think of it as two people speaking the same language but using a different dialect or accent. They are saying the same thing, but it is just different enough to remain difficult for the other to understand.

The question now becomes whether either side is willing to take the time to really understand the slight differences in the language each side is speaking in order to save the season.

Less Is More

A final, yet very important, reason to stay optimistic that some sort of season can be salvaged is the simple fact that there are not that many issues to solve.

It is really just trying to find a way to split up hockey related revenue 50-50 while not affecting players existing contracts negotiated in good faith under the terms of the now-expired CBA.

Simple, right?

Well...no. But still, there are far fewer mountains to climb then there were eight years ago.

Anyone who lived through the last lockout will remember amorphous terms such as "cost certainty" and might shudder a little bit. Does anyone know exactly what that means eight years later?

Thankfully, no one is talking about things like cost certainty, hard salary caps, soft salary caps, luxury tax or revenue sharing, at least not to the extent they were in 2004.

There is every reason for the average hockey fan to feel very good about this. The two sides are actually very close to a deal now that both sides have, in essence, indicated they can live with a 50-50 split in hockey related revenue.

In 2004, the first obstacle—and a huge obstacle it was—was getting the players to agree to a salary cap of any kind. An equally large obstacle then became agreeing on the amount of any such salary cap.

That is not what is going on now. Here in 2012, the players, understandably, don't want to give up any more than they gave up the last time. More importantly, at least if what Burnside and LeBrun are reporting is accurate, the players primary concern is making sure all previously agreed to contracts are honored.

And, if those articles are correct, the owners are willing to make this a reality and to include mechanisms in any new CBA that will honor all the prior contracts.

If that is really all that is left to resolve, then there is every reason to believe a season of some length can be salvaged.

It seems pretty clear from the fact that both sides have been talking—and talking seriously—about trying to save an 82-game season that neither side wants to see another season get sent to the trash heap. That too is a very good sign.

And perhaps recent history—and not just NHL history—is providing some extra motivation for the NHL and NHLPA to resolve this mess.

The NFL's 2011 lockout was immensely more complicated than this lockout—with much more money and moving parts involved—and the NFL lost no regular season games.

The 2011 NBA lockout looked a lot like the 2004-05 NHL lockout. The key issues involved a salary cap and how to divide basketball-related income. Even the numbers were somewhat similar, as NBA players were receiving roughly 57 percent of basketball related income prior to the players being locked out in 2011.

The NBA situation seemed particularly hopeless. It took the two sides three months to even mention a 50-50 split of revenue. We saw unions dissolve, mediation and anti-trust lawsuits before, almost miraculously, the two sides reached a deal and managed to piece together a 66-game season.

In virtually every way, the NHL lockout is not nearly so complicated and not anywhere close to being so bleak. The NHLPA has not decertified. There have been no lawsuits. It may yet take some form of mediation to bring this absurdity to an end. But even if that happened, the issues would be narrow and fairly well defined, making the mediator's job much easier.

Neither side wants to try and look the court of public opinion in the face and try and justify why they could not resolve one simple, albeit messy, issue, whereas the NFL and NBA were able to resolve infinitely more complicated situations and save their respective seasons.

This next week will tell the tale. Either the two sides will get serious about trying to strike a deal or they will, indeed, take a huge, and unnecessary, step backwards.

They are very far ahead of where they were at this time in 2004. They are talking and have really narrowed the issues involved to the finer details of how to accomplish a 50-50 split of hockey-related revenue.

While it is easy to question the leadership of both sides involved, neither Gary Bettman or Donald Fehr strike me as stupid men. They know whats involved here and what is at stake for both sides. Neither the NHL or NHLPA, unlike 2004, seem to really be resigning themselves to the fact that losing another season is an acceptable outcome.

As long as that is the prevailing attitude, and so long as the two sides keep talking, there is every reason to believe there will be an NHL season of some length in the very near future.

Keep the faith hockey fans.

Keep the faith.


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