John Smallwood: Lockout likely, but what then?

Posted: September 16, 2012

For the sake of hockey fans, I hope am wrong. But I don't see how the 2012-13 NHL season is going to start any time soon.

I'm not convinced the owners and players are ready to go as far as they did in September 2004, when their labor dispute forced the cancellation of the 2004-05 season.

But I don't think either side is completely terrified of a repeat performance.

On Thursday, commissioner Gary Bettman got unanimous approval from the league owners to implement a league-induced lockout if a contract agreement is not reached by midnight on Saturday.

Considering how poorly things were going when negotiations broke off on Wednesday, the idea that the two sides can breach what has been reported as a wide divide on "core economic concepts" doesn't seem likely.

Odds are that a lockout will happen. What happens next is what's going to be interesting.

I don't think the entire 2012-13 season is at risk yet, but I don't think either side is willing to take that threat off the table.

Think about it.

The NHL already knows what it is like to jump off the cliff. It remains the only professional sports league in North America to miss an entire season because of a work stoppage.

Major League Baseball, the National Football League and National Basketball Association have all missed games due to work stoppages, but none ever dared to go as far as the NHL did in 2004.

I'm not sure anyone in the NHL truly believed that after imposing a lockout on Sept. 15, 2004, Bettman would announce 3 months later:

"It is my sad duty to announce that because a solution has not yet been attained, it is no longer practical to conduct even an abbreviated season. Accordingly, I have no choice but to announce the formal cancellation of play."

The scary thing is that the lessons the NHL learned from 2004-05 are the exact opposite of what you probably think the owners and players would have learned.

The problem was that the settlement that brought the NHL back for 2005-06 was not one where both sides came away feeling like each gave something for the sake of compromise.

The owners were the hands-down winners in the negotiations.

Internal fighting in the NHL Players Association dissolved the players' resolve and they caved.

Not only did the owners get the hard salary cap linked to a fixed percentage of revenue, they also got the players to agree to a 24 percent rollback on existing salaries.

The players got free agency after 7 years of NHL service, which basically would take a player to his late 20s before being eligible.

And the game recovered.

It wasn't easy, but the NHL ultimately won its fans back.

So let's bring this back to now.

If you're the owners and Bettman, you know that the players have already shown that they will ultimately agree to just about any deal if you simply wait long enough.

Unlike players, the owners don't have limited careers and lives solely dependent on their NHL paychecks.

Losing a season wasn't Pleasantville, but it fell way short of the Armageddon many predicted.

How could they not be tempted to roll the dice again if they don't get another agreement grossly tilted in their favor?

But if you are the players, you know that you got reamed last time.

You capitulated to just about every demand and took a heavy financial hit to give the owners the "cost certainty" they said they had to have for the league to survive and thrive.

And now after both sides agreed that the players getting 57 percent of the hockey-related revenue was good for cost certainty, the owners want you to give back more.

The owners' last offer of 47 percent of the hockey-related revenue would require the players to again immediately give back a percentage of their current salaries.

How can you not feel like the owners are again taking you for suckers?

Why would you again make huge concessions from the status quo when you know that as soon as this contract is up, the owners will again cry poor mouth and ask for even more?

"Of course [the players]are frustrated," said NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr. "Of course, they'd like this done. Of course they'd like it to be over so they can get back on the ice.

"No athlete likes to lose games. If they are willing to, there must be some powerful reasons."

And don't think the NHLPA hiring Fehr late in 2010 was not a pre-emptive strike to prepare for exactly what is going on now.

As the Major League Baseball owners found out from more than 2 decades off battling with Fehr as executive director of MLB Players Association, the pronunciation of his last name is the emotion owners should feel about him.

Fehr's MLBPA was the most powerful union in sports. MLB owners struck out every time they went up against him in trying to regulate, limit or take back players' contractual rights.

He kept his players unified through the 1994-95 strike that resulted in the cancellation of the 1994 playoffs and World Series.

Ultimately the players returned to work without the owners getting a salary cap or the changes in salary arbitration they wanted.

You can bet that whatever the final agreement, Fehr will make sure the NHL owners won't have such a one-sided victory this time around.

Right now, losing the entire 2012-13 NHL season is not something I think either the owners or the players want.

But don't think it can't happen.

They did the unthinkable once. It could happen again.


Contact John Smallwood at smallwj@phillynews.com.

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