By Stu Hackel
Now in Day 4, the lockout of NHL players by team owners has produced news on a number of fronts. Here's a roundup of some noteworthy items:
• The biggest news occurred late Wednesday afternoon when the league announced the first cancellation of games, specifically the 60 preseason matches scheduled for September plus the annual small town "Hockeyville" game that this year celebrates Stirling-Rawdon, Ontario, to be played on Oct. 3 in Belleville, Ont., between the Maple Leafs and Blue Jackets.
As was the case in the lockout of 2004-05, we can expect the slow torture of regular cancellation announcements as long as there is no new CBA.
The two sides did speak briefly on Tuesday and it was thought they would have more informal discussions on Wednesday to see if they can restart formal talks. Nothing has been reported confirming any discussions did take place.
There is a sense in some quarters (as expressed by TSN and ESPN's Pierre LeBrun, The Ottawa Sun's Chris Stevenson and TSN's Bob McKenzie over Montreal's TSN 690 radio) that we're at a crucial moment, and a small window exists during the next week or two for the parties to start making progress. If regular season games start getting canceled, we should get set for a long stalemate. "If nothing happens," McKenzie said Wednesday morning, "we're going back to the dynamic of 2004" when there was virtually no discussion between the sides for three months after the league declared the lockout.
The NHL's Bill Daly, who made a few media appearances in Toronto earlier this week, said over Toronto's TSN radio 1250, "It's been a totally different negotiation than it was in 2004-05. I think it's safe to say that occasionally we got together during the summer of 2004, (but) there wasn't much bargaining or exploring issues. I think we've plowed a lot of ground this summer. As I said, we haven't made much progress on the critical issues, but certainly we have a better framework to move forward if we can ever start making progress."
But Daly, like everyone, is frustrated that the sides have not found much to agree on with respect to what the league calls the "core economics," that is, the percentage of Hockey Related Revenue devoted to player salaries, which the league's opening proposal would reduce by 24 percent to 43 percent from the current 57. That number was revised to 47 percent last week but, presumably, that is now off the table, as Gary Bettman said it would be if the players did not accept it by Saturday night.
"A lot of the noise around this lockout is how it is not like 2004, when there was a disagreement over the fundamental financial structure of the game," writes Stevenson. "If both sides are entrenched in their philosophies, or one refuses to budge, the potential for a repeat of 2004-05 is just as real. That's the thought starting to creep into a few people's minds as this impasse lingers."
• Collateral Damage: The first casualties of the lockout emerged this week when Ottawa Senators laid off employees and cut the hours of some others on Monday and the Florida Panthers followed suit on Tuesday, and among the casualties was the guy who dresses as the team mascot. On Wednesday, employees at the NHL offices were told they'd also be reduced to four-day work weeks, and a get a 20 percent pay cut starting Oct. 1 with future layoffs possible.
While attention has focused on non-players whose livelihoods will be adversely affected by the lockout, not enough has gone to the on-ice officials who won't work and get paid by the league if there are no games.
Jim Matheson of The Edmonton Journal reports that most of the officials won't work minor pro games and they aren't being asked to do their jobs in Europe. "Veteran NHL referees can earn up to $340,000 a year and linesmen earn about two-thirds of that during a typical season," he writes. "But they don’t get paid when there’s a lockout, although they can take out $5,000 in interest-free loans against their wages every month.
"The officials’ current contract specifies they start getting paid on Sept. 1, but that was only for just two weeks, with the lockout starting on Sept. 15. During the last lockout, the on-ice staff lost an entire season’s salary — just like the players."
“If this lockout is protracted, the guys have to start thinking of other options to provide family income,” retired NHL ref Kerry Fraser told Matheson. “Some of the guys struggled last time. Nobody thought it was going to be the entire season. And when it was cancelled, guys were saying, ‘God, now what do I do?’"
• Paying the cost: We mentioned in a Red Light post on Tuesday how significant the matter of player insurance is to NHLers who will play professionally in Europe during the lockout. But what about the insurance for the vast majority of NHLers, who won't be plying their trade on those big 200 x 100 sheets of ice?
Kevin Allen of USA Today reports that the NHL cancelled the coverage of all the players and their families, including medical and dental, and disability, life (including spouses), and accidental death and dismemberment. The NHLPA notified the players in a memo on Tuesday that they have made arrangements for the continuation of the coverage. However, the disability coverage does not cover the value of their NHL contracts. And any player who signs with a European club is not eligible for the PA's disability coverage which, as we noted in our post, has to be purchased by the club or the player himself.
• Caravan on Skates: Those players not skating in Europe are looking for alternatives in North America. During the 2004-05 lockout, a group of NHLers tried forming the Original Stars Hockey League, which played four-on-four games with no body checking and it turned into a very short-lived rag-tag operation that only lasted two games (SI's Michael Farber described that disorganized organization here). Another four-on-four league was more successful, the McDonald’s Caravan. Organized by defenseman Joel Bouchard, it featured three teams of Francophone players that toured Quebec and donated their proceeds to charity. (Here's the press release announcing the Caravan.) That group played to full arenas and had their weekend games televised.
There's talk that the Caravan might be revived in Quebec, according to Tim Panaccio of CNS Phily.com with teams from both Montreal and Quebec and perhaps others.
• Crunching Numbers: Does the NHL have a "lockout addiction?" That's what Wayne Scanlan of The Ottawa Citizen wonders in his profile of one alienated fan. Scanlan did the math that reveals, "No professional sport shuts down more frequently than the NHL, now starting it’s fourth work stoppage since 1992.
"In that time span, the NHL has missed 1,698 games due to labor issues, compared to 938 for Major League Baseball, 788 for the NBA and a big fat zero for the most popular league in North America, the NFL. The meter is about to run again, adding to hockey’s 1,698 total as the NHL prepares to interrupt a schedule that is supposed to begin on Oct. 11. Considering that the two sides remain deeply entrenched, with players wanting the NHL to adopt revenue sharing while the league advocates clawing back player salaries, this could take a while to resolve."