NOBODY'S been looking forward to today but it's here and the NHL's future is now officially cloudy.
League commissioner Gary Bettman said weeks ago he would impose a player lockout if there was no new labour agreement with the NHL Players' Association by the expiration of the deal struck in 2005.
That day is today.
If the lockout proceeds as of 10:59 p.m. local time tonight, training camps -- including that of the Winnipeg Jets -- will not open next week and it will become increasingly unlikely pre-season games will be played. It can be a lot for hockey fans to wrap their heads around hockey-related revenue arguments as millionaire players and millionaire/billionaire owners attempt to divvy up a billion-dollar pot.
Free Press hockey writers Tim Campbell and Ed Tait will try to get you up to speed today with answers to frequently asked questions about this labour dispute.
Q: What's a lockout? What's a strike? Which is this?
A: With the expiration of the 2005 collective bargaining agreement, neither side has binding terms under which to keep operating/ playing. They could, of course, but the owners do not wish to because they wish to alter the terms of any future agreement with the players. So they grind the business to a halt by locking out the players. The players have indicated they’d continue to play under the terms of the old agreement, but the owners want no part of that for two reasons. One, the financial terms are increasingly unfavourable to the league, so it makes no sense to continue that way. Two, if they were to agree to keep playing, the players could strike at any time and would gain considerable leverage by choosing the timing. The 10-day strike of 1992 illustrated that in spades, coming in early April, and the league will be quite determined to never permit that again.
Q: What are the issues?
A: It’s not a short answer. Claiming too many clubs lose money and that their operating bills are forever on the increase, the league is demanding the players take a lower percentage of overall revenue. It started by proposing to reduce their expiring 57 per cent to 43, under a new definition of hockey related revenue (HRR). It has since upped the offer to 46 per cent, and then, reverting to the old definition of HRR, proposed a starting point of 49 per cent sliding to 47 in a six-year deal. The league has also asked for more service from a player before he’s a free agent, to do away with arbitration rights, to increase entry-level restrictions from three years to five and to limit any contract to a maximum of five years. The players have countered by offering to forego a major share of their revenue-share increases for three years before returning to 57 per cent for a fourth year. That was modified to a five-year deal but still fixed to foregoing percentages of growth only. The NHLPA has also proposed a sharp increase in revenue sharing among clubs to help financially strapped teams. So far, neither side has been talking the other’s language and little, if any, bargaining has actually taken place because the NHL has insisted on solving the monetary issues first.
Q: What are some options for the players if they're locked out?
A: Mainline NHLers might have a tough time if they’re not European. Leagues in Russia (KHL), Sweden (SEL) as well as Germany and Austria have tight restrictions on imports. And don’t forget, most European seasons have already begun. Finland might be an easier mix, but there certainly aren’t jobs for everyone overseas. More fringe NHLers, depending on their contracts, could be eligible to play in the AHL. Some may even qualify to play junior for a year. In most cases, though, players would need to find insurance for their contracts — and it’s not always cheap — since the NHL wouldn’t be honouring anyone’s deal if they were hurt while playing during a lockout. Most NHL players will likely be stuck to wait out a solution.
Q: What will happen to the NHL schedule?
A: The exhibition season is in serious jeopardy now. The players won’t care much about that since they aren’t paid their regular salary for pre-season games. After that, it’s hard to say. If, say, the dispute was resolved and only 10 games were to be lost, the NHL might just pick up its schedule at the appropriate point. Beyond that, it’s highly likely the league will already be working on other possibilities, all new, like a 60- or 50-game schedule if the year can be salvaged. It will want to keep the in-division and in-conference games in balance and it’s likely any out-of-conference games will be the first casualties. The league’s advantage there is that it already knows what home dates each club has available for the season from the original schedule.
Q: Is there a drop-dead date before another season gets wiped out again, like in 2004-05?
A: There’s nothing carved in stone. There is a belief that if there isn’t something done by December then fans should really become worried because it would put the annual Winter Classic — featuring the Maple Leafs and Red Wings at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on New Year’s Day — in jeopardy. Something to consider, however: losing the Classic would cost the NHL several million dollars but that’s loose change when they are attempting to fix their business model. A more realistic dropdead date would likely be mid-January. The 1994-95 labour dispute ended on Jan. 11, 1995, cost the NHL 468 games and reduced the schedule to 48 games. In 2004-05 the plug was pulled on Feb. 16, 2005 after a flurry of last-second proposals and counter-proposals still didn’t lead to an agreement.
Q: How might a lockout, then a resolution, change training camp?
A: Again, nothing is certain but a hypothetical resolution, say in November, would probably see teams hold a shortened camp of maybe a week or 10 days, almost certainly without the bulk of extra tryout or AHL or junior players, then just get on with the season. After the 1994 lockout ended in early January 1995, there were no pre-season games at all and the season began after short camps.
Q: Who still gets paid during a lockout?
A: The top lieutenants from both the NHL and NHLPA -- commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy Bill Daly and players' association boss Don Fehr and his brother Steve -- have all said they'll NOT take pay during the lockout. In fact, Don Fehr said he stopped drawing a salary on July 1 while Bettman and Daly will follow if nothing is completed by today. Coaches, GMs and scouts will continue to be paid during the lockout, but among the players, only the previously injured -- like Jets' defenceman Zach Bogosian, who recently underwent surgery on his wrist -- will still be compensated.
Q: Would True North bring in the St. John's IceCaps or WHL or MJHL or university games to the MTS Centre if the Jets aren't playing?
A: Almost certainly there will be no IceCaps games at the MTS Centre. St. John's is in a sold-out position for its regular-season games and simply wouldn't abandon its own fans that way. As for other leagues/teams, True North has not been pursuing any replacement "events" for potential lost Jets dates, but nothing is set in stone there for weeks and months down the road.
Q: Would this circumstance have True North thinking about a WHL franchise again?
A: The question presumes True North has thought about this in the past for more than five minutes. The WHL is not believed to be a good fit for Winnipeg for numerous reasons and it's highly unlikely what most hope is a temporary labour dispute will change True North's thinking on this matter.
Q: What about the 'little people' -- the ticket takers and concession workers, the folks that work on game day?
A: Unfortunately, no games means there is no work for these people. No work means no pay.
Q: How would the AHL be affected by an NHL lockout?
A: Easy answer: dramatically. Players on their entry-level contracts could be assigned to the AHL (the only Jet this applies to is Alex Burmistrov) and that could include young stars like Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin, for example. During the 2004-05 lockout the AHL was bolstered by the additions of Eric Staal, Zach Parise, Mike Cammalleri, Jay Bouwmeester and Jason Spezza, among others.
Q: Can there be any interaction between the team and players during a lockout?
A: No. Players aren't allowed access to the locker-room or workout facilities or have access to coaches or trainers. They could continue to rent ice locally. As well, the lockout means teams are prohibited from promoting or using players at team-sponsored events.
Q: Who might be casualties of a long lockout?
A: Immediately you'd think of veteran players, the likes of Ottawa's Daniel Alfredsson, New Jersey's Martin Brodeur, Dallas's Brenden Morrow or Jaromir Jagr and Anaheim's Teemu Selanne. Of course, it's always wise to keep in mind that a year off, if it comes to that, has helped some players in the past. Selanne certainly comes to mind, and maybe it could convince Detroit's Nik Lidstrom to play a while longer.
Q: I have Jets tickets. What happens to me?
A: Stay tuned. The Jets are likely to reveal their plan for ticket-holders shortly after the lockout goes into effect.