By Stu Hackel
For Wilson Pickett, the midnight hour meant something pretty great, but what's tumbling down for hockey fans are the prospects of training camps opening, the season starting on time and a full schedule of the sport's top league.
There were supposed to be no formal announcements at the midnight hour, but the NHL lockout began the moment Saturday turned into Sunday. Cancellation of all the things above are on the owners' agenda as they try to force the players to accept a collective bargaining agreement that may not be in their best interests.
The two sides met informally on Saturday afternoon. NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly and NHLPA special counsel Steve Fehr had lunch together in Manhattan. Fehr suggested that the two sides reconvene formal talks before midnight, but Daly declined when he learned that the players remained uninterested in making a deal that would substantially lower their salaries.
Each side subsequently released a statement and they don't seem to completely agree on who decided not to re-open formal talks.
"We spoke today and determined that there was no point in convening a formal bargaining session in light of the fact that neither side is in a position to move off of its last proposal," Daly said Saturday afternoon (quoted by Kevin Allen in USA Today). "I'm sure we will keep in touch in the coming days and schedule meetings to the extent they might be useful or appropriate. We are sorry for where we are. Not what we hoped or expected."
"Today we suggested that the parties meet in advance of the owners' self-imposed deadline of midnight tonight," said Steve Fehr, brother of the NHLPA's executive director. "Don Fehr, myself and several players on the negotiating committee were in the city and prepared to meet. The NHL said that it saw no purpose in having a formal meeting. There have been and continue to be private, informal discussions between representatives of both sides."
As we noted in our post on Friday, the question worth asking is: At what point does hard bargaining become no bargaining?
Whether the lockout is actually in anyone's best interest is another interesting question because with the NHL's popularity and revenues reaching new heights, the potential loss of some, if not all, of the season could damage the entire business. It didn't happen after the lockout of 2004-05; just the opposite as the game eventually was slingshot upward. But a good part of that had to do with vast improvements to the product in the form of a new generation of stars and the "new rules" that opened up the offensive side of the game, making it a faster and more exciting spectacle than it had been during the trap-happy decade that preceded it.
The main rule changes being contemplated when the game returns this time involve getting tougher on diving and tweaking the way interference is called so it conforms more to the standard coming out of the last lockout. That's hardly the sort of makeover the league gave itself in 2005. As for new stars, while young players as a group have never been so talented, there doesn't seem to be any generational superstars like Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin in anyone's pipeline.
So a second slingshot effect could be a pipe dream, especially if fan disgruntlement with the second prolonged lockout in less than a decade results in paying customers staying away from NHL arenas when they re-open.
There were a few fan protests scheduled for today in New York, Montreal, Boston and Tampa Bay. The demonstration in front of the NHL store in New York drew only about 20 people (here's a photo of the modest turnout from SNY Rangers blogger Adam Rotter), the one in Montreal may have only brought out the organizer according to Harrison Mooney of the Yahoo Puck Daddy blog. No word yet on Boston or Tampa Bay, but the very low turnout resulted in derogatory remarks over Twitter, to which Puck Daddy's Greg Wyshynski tweeted, "Good on those fans protesting NHL today. Their numbers will be mocked by cynics, but it shows we give a damn."
Of course, no one is actually missing hockey yet. Training camps aren't set to open until Sept. 21, the first preseason game is scheduled for Sept. 23 and the regular season is supposed to start on Oct. 11. If the sides could reach a deal before the end of the month, the season could probably be salvaged.
The chances of that don't seem very good at the moment, however, especially with the owners declining invitations to negotiate.
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