NHL Lockout 2012: 5 Reasons NHL Is in Dire Straits If Lockout Cancels Season

Kevin Schlittenhardt@kevinschlitzCorrespondent IIOctober 23, 2012

NHL Lockout 2012: 5 Reasons NHL Is in Dire Straits If Lockout Cancels Season

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    Hockey fans are a dedicated tribe that scrapes together their hard-earned money to see their favorite NHL players.

    How are they repaid?

    With reports of team owners and players fighting over their million-dollar salaries and the threat of a canceled season.

    After weeks of small talk between the league and the NHLPA, a glimmer of hope for a 2012-13 season emerged: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman offered a 50-50 split in revenue between owners and players, and a full season starting in November.

    "It was done in the spirit of getting a deal done," said Bettman (via Sports Illustrated).

    Donald Fehr, executive director of the NHLPA, answered Bettman’s proposal with three counteroffers of his own.

    According to the New York Times, Fehr’s first two counteroffers accepted Bettman’s terms, providing the league’s revenue grew at a specified rate over the next several years. Both counteroffers were rejected by Bettman.

    Fehr’s final counteroffer agreed to Bettman’s terms under the condition that the NHL honors all current contracts. The league did not budge.

    “It is not a 50-50 deal,” said Bill Daly, deputy commissioner of the NHL (via the New York Times). “It is most likely a 56- to 57-percent deal in Year 1 and never gets to 50 percent during the proposed five-year term of the agreement.”

    With that as the final word, hockey fans are angry, season-less and likely to recede from the dedicated tribe from whence they came. If the 2012 lockout ends with a canceled season, ex-hockey fans will seek refuge at NFL, NBA and MLB games—perhaps never to return.

    Here are five reasons why one more canceled season could press the NHL’s luck too far.

Player-Owner Relationship Beyond Repair

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    In the past 20 years, the NHL has seen three lockouts—all of which happened under Commissioner Gary Bettman. Bettman’s relationship with the players was flimsy before the lockout; now it is hanging on by a thread.

    Boston Bruin’ center David Krejci’s recent comments help put into perspective how rocky this relationship truly is:

    “We want to play. We’re the ones who are doing the show in the NHL, but Bettman thinks it makes him,” Krejci said in an interview with Czech media outlet iSport.cz (via ESPN). “It is unfortunate that the NHL has such a guy. It’s a shame for the entire hockey world. Treats us like animals.”

    Several weeks earlier, Detroit Red Wings senior vice president Jim Devellano made a similar comparison that cost him a $250,000 fine:

    "The owners can basically be viewed as the ranch, and the players, and me included, are the cattle," Devellano said (via TSN). "The owners own the ranch and allow the players to eat there. That's the way it's always been and that the way it will be forever. And the owners simply aren't going to let a union push them around. It's not going to happen."

    At least the two sides have something they can agree on. 

Russian Players Could Stay in Russia

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    In response to the NHL lockout, many Russian stars like Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin have gone to play in the KHL. With no season in sight and the possibility of a drastic pay cut, the migration of Russian players could be permanent.

    “If they're gonna cut percentage of the contract and years, I don't think lots of guys who signed American deals are gonna come back and play here,” said Ovechkin on a conference call with the Washington Times. “It's not reasonable to be here. You have to think of the future, you have to think of your family.”

    Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, who became a popular NHL personality after exposure from HBO’s 24/7, also spoke on behalf of himself and his Russian teammates:

    “I think some of the players may not return to the NHL because you have everything here and major companies are going to pay the top players here big money,” said Bryzgalov in a press conference after a KHL game (via TSN). “Especially for Russians players who can play at home in front of their own fans and families and [earn] even bigger money than they have in the National Hockey League.”

    The NHL cannot afford to lose players like Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk, Malkin and Ovechkin, all of whom are arguably among the league’s top forwards. If the Russian players leave, so do their fans—and that is a lot of fans.

Mantra of 2012 Lockout: Greed

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    The focus of the current lockout is on lowering the 57 percent of the league’s revenue that players receive under the recently-expired collective bargaining agreement. There is nothing like 2004’s salary cap proposal—leaving fans to wonder just how far the league will go to get their way.

    The salary cap that was imposed after the 2004 lockout limited how much a team could spend on player contracts. In the midst of cutting players’ revenue down to 57 percent, it leveled the playing field for less-profitable teams.

    Neither side is advocating for any drastic changes that would alter the game entirely like the salary cap arguably did. The argument is for a seven percent differential within the foreseeable future.

    Commissioner Gary Bettman has left every opportunity available for the NHLPA to come to terms and still salvage a full 82-game season. This suggests that the solution to the current lockout is a more attainable than those in previous lockouts.

    However, the NHLPA just recently had three reasonable counteroffers rejected by the league.  

    Nevertheless, the greed-driven stalemate continues and the patience of hockey fans is dangerously low. 

Threatens Recent Upward Trend

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    Last season, the NHL, with some help from its new deal with NBC, amassed its highest revenue in eight years—$3.3 billion (via Sports Illustrated). Just when the sport was beginning to contend against the NBA, MLB and NFL, the NHL pulled the plug.

    As the league gained popularity through NBC and HBO’s 24/7 documentary on the Winter Classic, the NHL was on the track to financial security. The lockout was an abrupt end to that.

    According to the ESPN attendance report, 14 teams averaged more than 18,000 people per game last season. Only six teams averaged more than 18,000 people per game in the 2010-11 season.  

    The league stepped out of the shadow of other popular US sports for just a moment—only to be shoved back inside by the lockout.

Utter Disregard for Fans

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    The lockout's resolution is reliant upon an agreement regarding the redistribution of the league's revenue. What both sides seem to be forgetting is that without the fans they are neglecting, there is no league revenue.

    There is no league period.

    Without the fans that work hard and save their paychecks so that they can attend games, the NHL would cease to exist. The inability of both sides to come to an agreement is putting the entire hockey community in jeopardy.

    It does not take three lockouts in fewer than 20 years for hockey fans to realize they are being taken for granted. However, the fact that the NHL is willing to test those limits is insulting to the fans.

    Yesterday, CTV News Edmonton released a story about NHL fan John Dick whose father, Bruce, had been diagnosed with terminal throat cancer. Dick and his father just want to spend the last stretch of Bruce’s life doing what they both love—watching hockey. 

    “Surely there is enough money there to go around. Let’s distribute it out so everyone is happy," said Bruce (via CTV News Edmonton). "For me especially this year, but I’m being selfish."