Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fans trapped in middle

Don't care who's right, just want to watch NHL games

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When it's all said and done sometime in the future, fans aren't going to care much who was more right, or who won.

They don't ask for much -- just a team to cheer for and games to go to.

Presently, that goes at least double for Winnipeg fans of the new Jets. After 15 years without, they want -- even need -- to love their team, have a place to show it and could well be expected to react like threatened momma grizzlies if anyone dares get in the way.

The fans, who are really more hard-core devotees north of the border, are once again about to be trapped in an NHL labour mess.

And despite the earnest and well-meaning fan groups and associations out there, nothing, not social media nor live protests, is really going to give them a seat at the table while owners and union members haggle over how to divide a $3-billion-plus pie.

If NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is left with no other option, he will put the league into player lockout after Sept. 15, the scheduled last day for the current collective bargaining agreement that came about after a 310-day lockout in 2004 and 2005.

In three weeks, it appears all but sure we'll be into the fourth NHL labour disruption since 1992.

So far, there have been proposals from each side, little in the way of recognizable negotiations and a lot of foot-dragging.

Of the hints and suggestions that have emanated from the talks so far, we know the owners are out to reduce the players share of hockey-related revenues (HRR) from 57 per cent to something less than that, plus stifle a number of other inflationary loopholes uncovered by the genius team managers who exist on many days simply to outdo their rivals in any and every way possible.

Though NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr keeps mentioning baseball and its luxury tax a little too often to make any hockey fan outside the largest five markets comfortable, we're also led to believe that players haven't suggested an end to the salary cap, instead having concerned themselves with other system suggestions that would not erode their wallets or their bargaining power.

Bettman has spoken frequently in recent weeks about getting the discussion focused on the core economic issues. That's code for steering these talks directly to the allocation of the revenue. Is 50 per cent really the number? That's a reasonable guess and if the sides could somehow get there, its plausible the league might consider arriving there in steps.

Direct and specific information, however, is difficult to find.

Other than Bettman, in his opinion, defusing the revenue-sharing issue with actual numbers on Thursday of this week (he said the sides could be as little as $50 million apart on that pool of money, a bridgeable gap that certainly wouldn't be a deal-breaker), we are left to watch body language, read between the lines of every word uttered, seek any kind of urgency at all and finally to resort to monitoring the gossip.

So much of the posturing, positioning, obfuscating, dodging and hypothetical strategizing is hot air, it's difficult to find the kernels of reality.

And when you do find one, it takes plenty of willpower not to invest all of one's hope into it, knowing that these entities have been down this road and know it well from three trips in the modern era, having stopped the playing and started the fan torture.

Each NHL work stoppage has had its different issues and characters. This one is no different. Though we can't give you the full code book, with the context of some history and the certainty that neither side wants the current $3.3 billion gravy train to get lighter, here's a lens with which to view recent events.



Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 25, 2012 C4

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