NHL lockout: Outrage, indifference as league cancels regular-season games

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

Opening night is gone, so no games in Montreal or Philadelphia or Calgary or Colorado. Oct. 12 is gone, so no healthy Sidney Crosby starting fresh in Pittsburgh, no New York vs. Los Angeles, the Rangers introducing Rick Nash, the Kings hoisting their first Stanley Cup banner. Oct. 13 is gone, so no "Hockey Night in Canada," no debut of Jaromir Jagr with Dallas, Jordan Staal with Carolina, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter with Minnesota, no Florida and Phoenix raising their first division banners.

Oct. 14 is gone. Oct. 15 is gone. Oct. 16 is gone. Keep going until Oct. 24, and be prepared to keep going and going. Because while the NHL canceled the first two weeks of the regular-season schedule Thursday, this is just the beginning of this lockout's damage unless the owners and players get over themselves, get back to the table and get something done.

Eighty-two games are gone, unless there is a miracle settlement soon and they can be shoehorned into a compressed schedule. Eighty-two games could be gone for each team – just like 2004-05, when the entire season was scrapped – unless NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players' Association executive director Don Fehr act smart and stop trying to outsmart each other.

"Feels like I'm going to practice without a purpose, and I hate it!" Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist tweeted minutes after the cancellation announcement. "Don and Gary, let's figure this one out!"

This is not surprising. Still, it is disappointing, and it is disturbing that this situation has deteriorated so rapidly, so badly.

[Related: Is there any hope for 82-game NHL schedule?]

This time of year is supposed to be about hope and excitement in the NHL – irrational exuberance, every-team-can-win previews, purple prose about the fall chill and virgin ice. Instead, it's about outrage and indifference – outrage among the core fans who cannot stand what is happening to their game, the fans both sides are counting on to come back when this is all over; indifference among the casual fans who are busy with football and baseball and basketball, the fans both sides need to attract for the game to reach its full potential.

The NHL should be on the rise after seven years of record revenues and seven different Stanley Cup champions, a marketable product with exciting action and competitive balance. Instead, the league is taking a step backward, again. It's a joke. It has lost 1,698 games to labor disruptions since 1992, more than the other three major sports leagues combined – if you still consider the NHL one of the major sports leagues. Major League Baseball has lost 938. The NBA has lost 504. The NFL has lost zero.

The league and union should have been able to reach a deal here, because they have been within the salary-cap framework. Both sides have agreed to decrease the players' share of revenues and increase revenue sharing, just not to the levels to satisfy each other. This should have been about numbers and compromise. Instead, this has been about rhetoric and tactics. They have been trying to settle old scores and maneuvering like opposing armies, failing to focus on the future and to find common ground. No one has made a formal proposal since Sept. 12, when the sides traded offers in New York three days before the lockout began. No excuse.

The bulk of the blame belongs to Bettman and the owners. They made a brutal miscalculation when they made their brutal opening offer, asking the players to go from 57 percent of hockey-related revenue to 43 percent, attacking contract lengths, arbitration rights and free-agency eligibility. It was supposed to be a starting point, something to draw the players to the table. But it became a rallying point for the players, keeping them away.

The players lost a season of their careers and incomes last time, and they swallowed a salary cap and 24-percent rollback in the end. Fehr, the baseball labor legend the players hired just for this fight, said as long ago as September 2011: "The players made an awful lot of concessions in the last agreement. It's pretty hard to see them being willing to do that again." What did the league think was going to happen? You can compare this to the NBA and NFL lockouts, which resulted in the players' percentages of revenue being cut, but those battles did not have this background.

Bettman and the owners have inched backward. Their last offer would have given the players 49 percent in Year 1, 48 percent in Year 2 and 47 percent in Years 3-6, and they have all but begged the players to make a counterproposal, indicating they have more room to move. Still, they have been all take and no give, without making a strong economic case for it. They have kept demanding an immediate pay cut when the players' No. 1 principle is "no rollback." They have done nothing to disprove the players' assertion that the lockout was their strategy of first resort.

[Also: Will players get their money's worth after lockout?]

Fehr and the players are not blameless, though. They took a month to make their first counterproposal, and though it seemed like a more honest attempt to make a deal and address the league's real issue – a wide disparity in money from market to market, requiring more revenue sharing – they have only tweaked it since. The players made $1.87 billion in salary last season and have insisted on raises of 2 percent, 4 percent and 6 percent the first three years, compounded, guaranteed.

Why? They say they want to make the league responsible for growth, but their projections of growth are more optimistic than the league's. If they are so confident, why haven't they negotiated on a percentage basis? They say they want a deal that will solve the league's problems and not lead to future conflict. So why are they looking for a shorter deal than the league is? They have done nothing to disprove the league's notion that they are dragging their feet, and while they complain that the lockout is the league's strategy of first resort, what is their strategy here? What is their end game?

Individual players – even well-spoken, smart ones – have kept demonizing Bettman and dwelling on the league's original offer. The Detroit Red Wings' Henrik Zetterberg, a member of the negotiating committee, told the Detroit Free Press that this is the way Bettman negotiates and "if he's going to stay, we'll probably go through it again." The Wild's Zach Parise told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that the owners want to "take a quarter of what you've made away." If the players think Bettman is the only problem and they're going to drive him out, if they can't see the owners' wish list for what it was and get past it, we're going nowhere.

[More: The Vent: Fan solutions, heartfelt lamentations and an open letter to Gary Bettman]

There is still time for Bettman or Fehr to be the bigger man, to take a risk, to put a realistic proposal on the table, to save an 82-game season, to save some kind of season. But that clock keeps ticking like a time bomb, and there is a serious lack of trust. The league doesn't want to make the next move, because it thinks that will just encourage Fehr to keep holding out; the players don't want to concede anything else, because they think Bettman will pocket that and ask for more. And so we wait.

We were wrong last time. Losing the 2004-05 season wasn't the apocalypse we predicted. In fact, it was the opposite. So we don't want to overdo it now. But something already has been lost here – a lot of money, plus something that isn't money on the surface, but becomes money in a business that sells loyalty and spirit, a business that manufactures drama and importance.

Whenever the next NHL season starts – whenever a healthy Crosby starts fresh, whenever the Kings raise their banner, whenever all those players make their debuts in new places – there won't be the same hope and excitement there would have been next weekend. There won't be the same overwrought romance. There will be no virgin ice. It will be stained.

And everyone involved should be ashamed.

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