Lockout Spells Danger for Hockey

On September 15, the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the National Hockey League (NHL) and the NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA) came to an end.

This left the league no choice but to lock out the players, meaning they cannot visit team facilities, get paid, or get traded. But the key here is that, unless there’s a miracle in the next few days, games will have to be cancelled.

This situation may not be unfamiliar for some sports fans, as the National Basketball Association recently played a 66-game season, shortened from the normal 82-game schedule due to CBA negotiations.

And, unfortunately, this situation for the NHL comes less than ten years after the entire 2004-05 season was cancelled by a lockout. It looks as though the resolution will be closer to the unwanted no-season scenario than one in which a full season is played.

Why can’t the sides come to an agreement? As with most things in sports, it comes down to money.

Currently, players are assigned 57 percent of “hockey-related revenue” (HRR), which is generated from things such as ticket sales, advertising and sponsorships, TV network contracts, and more.

The league owners want to reduce this number as much as they can, which could be anywhere from 47 to 50 percent. The NHLPA wants to keep it at 57 percent, or insert a clause that would start it off at a lower amount and bring it back up near the end of the deal.

Additionally, NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr has indicated that he will fight for changes in the salary cap system, which would likely mean a removal of the current variable hard cap, which sat at $63 million last season.

Incidentally, Fehr represented Major League Baseball’s players in the 1994 MLB labor strike. In this case, the CBA had expired in December 1993, but the league and the MLB Players’ Association allowed play to continue as long as negotiations continued.

Fehr firmly believed that the NHL could try to play on without a deal, but this did not come to fruition. Now, with the season slated to begin October 11, something major would have to change in order to avoid losing games.

Considering the NHL lockout of 2004, this is the last thing hockey needs. The resulting in-game rule changes, such as the trapezoid behind the goal and the introduction of shootouts, have made for a more exciting, and certainly more interesting, product.

But fan support dropped sharply during the first couple of years after the league restarted, except in the big hockey towns like Detroit, Chicago, and New York. And the sport is also given a bad rap for being a thuggish sport, where fighting is semi-legal and headshots are almost as frequent as goals.

And now they’re going to cancel games for the second time in less than ten years because they can’t decide how to distribute money? Some fans will definitely be disappointed with that.

Those people, however, are not what I would consider true fans. A true fan will stick it out with the league, waiting for the deal to get done, and be first in line at the ticket window when things start back up.

The players, on the other hand, will be fighting on a couple of fronts. They will want to be playing, and, of course, they are not going to like the lack of a paycheck. As such, Europe will provide an outlet for many players.

Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) features 26 teams, and new stipulations will allow each team in that league to take in up to three current NHL players, provided they meet various quality standards.

Additionally, leagues in countries such as Finland and Sweden have been treasure troves for NHL teams in terms of producing elite talent. Players born in those countries could consider returning, if only temporarily.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway here is the impact this will have on South Florida. The Panthers were easily the most exciting team in the state last year (no offense meant to the Heat), although they were probably the most frustrating as well.

Breaking a historic playoff drought of more than a decade, the Panthers stormed to a Southeast Division title and the third seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

The change in the franchise’s attitude, which included signing many key free agents, put them firmly at the center of Florida’s attention. Fan support soared to levels not seen since the team played at the Miami Arena — back when they made the Stanley Cup finals in 1996. Heck, they even brought back the rats.

With the momentum of the Panthers’ best season in a long time firmly set in, coach Kevin Dineen’s squad would have been considered a major player in the postseason chase. Improvement on the 94 points racked up last year was almost a sure bet.

But now, most teams will probably struggle out of the gates, if there’s even games played this season. Fan support will waver. And in the end, the whole thing will have been about money. Such a shame.

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