We’re less than a week away from the opening day of the 2012-13 NHL season, which can only mean one thing — the players are locked out. It’s time to take a closer look at what the NHL lockout is all about and when we might see it come to an end.
Will NHL players flock to play in professional leagues in Europe?
It looks that way. During the 2004-05 lockout, nearly 400 NHL players — more than half of the league’s players — played in professional leagues overseas. It remains to be seen how high that number will climb this year, but the exodus has already begun. The paychecks from these foreign leagues (most of the contracts will likely have out-clauses that allow the players to return to the NHL when the lockout ends) will obviously help soften the financial blow of the lockout and allow the players to survive the game of lockout chicken longer than many of their counterparts in the NBA and NFL. But, based on what happened in 2004, the ability of NHL players to scatter across Europe and make money playing professional hockey does not mean that the lockout will be any shorter or less painful for fans.
Does anything else work in favor of the players?
Yes. It’s hard to stay mad at a face like this.
Are the players more unified this year?
Don Fehr and his team have done a very good job of unifying a diverse group of players. About 54 percent of NHL players are Canadian, while another 23 percent are from Europe and around 23 percent from the U.S. Still, many of the players have been actively involved in the negotiations and appear to be speaking (at least for now) with a single voice. It’s not a new challenge for Fehr, who spent a large part of his career unifying an extremely diverse population of Major League Baseball players.
Is the NHLPA doing anything to help soften the blow of the lockout on the players?
Yes. The NHLPA has agreed to step in and cover the insurance premiums for players during the lockout. These premiums, which were covered by the league prior to the lockout, provide coverage to players and their families for medical, dental, disability, life, and accidental death insurance. These policies do not, however, cover insurance for the players’ NHL contracts if they are injured while playing overseas. Premiums for two-month policies covering NHL player contracts reportedly can range from $20,000 to $70,000.
Is it a certainty that we’re headed for a long lockout and that the regular season will not start on time?
Well, as of yesterday, we know the season will not start on time, but that’s not because of a long lockout. The NHL lockout began upon the expiration of the CBA on September 15, less than a month before the scheduled start of the regular season on October 11. The cancellation of the preseason and games through October 24 all occurred before the lockout was even a month old. Compare that to the situation in the NFL last year. The NFL lockout began upon the expiration of the CBA on March 11, 2011. The NFL preseason was not scheduled to begin until almost five months later, on August 7, and the regular season did not start until September 8. (Similarly, the NBA lockout began with the expiration of the CBA on July 1. The regular season was scheduled to begin on November 1.) While the Hall of Fame Game — the first preseason game — was canceled, the NFL was able to salvage the bulk of the preseason and the entire regular season by coming to terms in month five of their lockout. The NHL doesn’t have the same luxury of time.
On the bright side, the NFL and NBA lockouts were filled with union dissolutions, antitrust lawsuits, injunction hearings, and NLRB claims. The players and the leagues, particularly in the NFL situation, spent much of the lockout arguing in court rather than negotiating at the bargaining table. While there have been a few legal skirmishes for the NHL, at least the bulk of the talks appear to be about resolving the CBA and not about litigation. That can only be a good sign. Unless you’re a lawyer, of course.
So, when can we expect a deal to get done?
It’s hard to predict a precise end date in these types of negotiations, but deals often get done at the point when — or just before — the parties risk losing more money than they’re fighting over. Or, if you prefer, when the juice is no longer worth the squeeze.
For the recent NFL referee lockout, that point may have been after the Monday Night debacle in Seattle. For the NBA lockout, that point was salvaging a 60-plus-game season and their marquee Christmas Day national television matchups. For the NFL, that point was saving the entire preseason — minus the Hall of Fame Game — and regular season.
What’s that point for the NHL? It’s not entirely clear, but the players won’t really start feeling the squeeze until they start missing paychecks (or paycheques) in October. Of course, even that squeeze is tempered by the paychecks that many of them will receive from playing overseas.
So perhaps that point is the Winter Classic, the NHL’s marquee event scheduled for January 1 at the Big House in Ann Arbor, Michigan, between the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs. As many as 120,000 people are expected to attend (which means about 90,000 people are expected to not be able to see the puck). The previous five Winter Classics were the five most-watched regular-season hockey games since the 1970s, and reports suggest that the game is tremendously profitable for the league.
Or perhaps that point is simply when a shortened season is no longer feasible and the entire season must be canceled. Can the league and the players afford to miss the Winter Classic because of the lockout? Yes. They’ll take a short-term hit for a long-term gain (for one of the parties, at least), but it’s hard to imagine either side being willing to cut off their nose, ears, eyes, and mouths to spite their faces by allowing the lockout to cancel yet another season. For now, we wait. Again.