NHL

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

We could be in for a long couple of seasons

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With each passing day, and the loss of more dollars, the possibility of the NHL and its union reaching a timely CBA grows smaller.

In fact, it's quite likely if there's no deal in the next month, it will be too late to avoid losing the season.

The NHL won't officially kill the season until January but the league's stance will soon harden to a point where the players will find it impossible to swallow.

The players won't even consider what the owners are asking for at this moment. Wait until the owners reduce their offer to reflect the losses that continue to mount.

The obvious response from the players will be to play their own version of hardball, perhaps bringing the hard salary cap into play, which union leader Don Fehr alluded to on Tuesday.

"If this goes on for an extended period of time, I don't know what they (the players) are going to do. But I think it's safe to say, they would be exploring all options," said Fehr.

The minute the union puts the salary cap on the table, this season, and maybe more, will certainly be lost.

People say there's too much to lose to not get a deal done. We know both sides are willing to risk a season. They're doing that right now.

Yahoo Sports hockey writer Nick Cotsonika came up with this prescient pearl the other day.

"Maybe a lost season was even worse than we thought. Once you've been through it and survived, it doesn't seem as scary. Scarier thought: If losing a season isn't that scary anymore, what is?" wrote the Michigan-based reporter.

Scary as in back-to-back seasons missed.

Can a 24-month lockout be possible? You bet. What the game will look like and what will be left to fight over when that is said and done is unknown. But don't think it can't happen.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will soon hear demands from his owners to go for larger concessions from the players in order to make up for the money they've lost to date.

It's an saying you hear from league types, "the owners will not fund the lockout" -- meaning whatever losses owners incur because of lost games they'll try to get back in the new deal.

Lose a billion dollars because of lost games? No problem. Cut the players' percentage of HRR in the new deal to get that money back. We've heard Bettman say the deal on the table prior to the lockout may no longer be valid when core economic negotiations start again. Bettman knows some of his owners will get far more hawkish the longer this impasse exists and he will have to satisfy their will.

The closer we get to November and the cancellation of the Winter Classic, the more unreasonable Bettman's bosses will get.

Forget about what's fair and the rest of that nonsense. The owners don't even pay attention to it. They view the NHL as their business, which shouldn't be a shocker seeing as they own it. They have determined a course of action they deem necessary and they'll now do what they have to in order to get it done.

Any notion to the contrary is naive. The union and Donald Fehr don't have to agree with what the owners want and they don't have to sign a deal they don't like. All that will accomplish is a lengthy lockout.

We've heard some, "the owners will cave," and "there's dissension in the ranks," talk of late. Don't buy it. An Eastern-based director told me recently there's no split in ownership and, in fact, the resolve seems firmer than ever.

Ownership doesn't get caught up in the emotion of what's right or wrong. They're businessmen with an agenda and the will to make it happen. If they weren't in favour of Bettman's plotted course they would have told him so in the summer. They knew what they were getting into.

The owners expected this. They planned for this. Did they hope the players would want to make a deal? Yes. But the minute Don Fehr was named NHLPA executive director they knew exactly what they had on their hands: a fight.

All of this puts Bettman in a difficult spot. No doubt, Bettman has seen the headlines and columns labeling him the Lockout Commissioner. It's a given Bettman will do what he and his owners determine is best for their interests but he's not a bloodless stone. Bettman understands another long lockout will damage his legacy in the eyes of the fans and while he won't let that rule his actions, it will nag at his soul.

Bettman would love to broker a long-term deal that gives the owners what they want and secures his vision for the league. Keep in mind, most of the markets that need of salary relief are expansion clubs that came in under Bettman's watch.

The commissioner made the league grand, but now he has to pay for it.

Bettman has his pressures. The question now is does Don Fehr have the same pressures? Are his players willing to go 12 months or longer without pay? They say they are but they must now be feeling the reality of that moment.

As a responsible union leader, Fehr will soon have to take their temperature.

If the reading is still hot, we won't be on ice for a long, long time.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 10, 2012 C2

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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