NEW YORK – What seemed inevitable for the NHL has now become reality. The league canceled the first two weeks of the regular season Thursday, the second time games have been lost because of a lockout in seven years.
The initial announcement was made in a two-paragraph statement from the league. It isn’t clear if those games will be made up, allowing for a complete 82-game regular season if a deal can be struck soon with the locked-out players.
Unable to work out how to split up $3 billion in hockey-related revenues with the players’ association, the NHL wiped out 82 games from Oct. 11 through Oct. 24 — beginning with four next Thursday, which would have been the league’s opening night.
“We were extremely disappointed to have to make today’s announcement,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said in a statement. “The game deserves better, the fans deserve better, and the people who derive income from their connection to the NHL deserve better.
“We remain committed to doing everything in our power to forge an agreement that is fair to the players, fair to the teams, and good for our fans. This is not about ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ a negotiation. This is about finding a solution that preserves the long-term health and stability of the league and the game. We are committed to getting this done.”
The union countered Thursday by saying the NHL forced the lockout onto the players instead of letting the season go on as planned.
“The decision to cancel the first two weeks of the NHL season is the unilateral choice of the NHL owners,” NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr said in a statement. “If the owners truly cared about the game and the fans, they would lift the lockout and allow the season to begin on time while negotiations continue.
“A lockout should be the last resort in bargaining, not the strategy of first resort,” he added. “For nearly 20 years, the owners have elected to lock out the players in an effort to secure massive concessions. Nevertheless, the players remain committed to playing hockey while the parties work to reach a deal that is fair for both sides. We hope we will soon have a willing negotiating partner.”
Although there have been negotiations between the league and players in recent days — unlike a three-month break at the start of the 2004-05 lockout that forced the cancellation of the entire season — the two sides haven’t gotten any closer to a deal on core economic issues.
“Obviously, (cancellations) might have been expected but it’s also disappointing because we set out to negotiate,” New York Rangers goalie Martin Biron said in a telephone interview. “We wanted to get a deal and wanted to avoid a work stoppage or any cancellations.
“We’re still working hard to find a solution and find a way to get the core economic stuff figured out with the league, and getting a deal that is fair for everybody and lasts.”
In the previous lockout, the NHL and the union didn’t get together between early September and early December.
Back then, the key words in the negotiations were salary cap, linkage and cost certainty.
Commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners were committed to getting a deal that linked team costs to revenues, so each club would know exactly how much it had to spend on payroll and what number it couldn’t exceed.
Thus a salary cap was born for the first time in NHL history.
The league produced record revenue during the seven years of that deal, which turned out much better for the players than expected.
There are no major philosophical issues this time as there were with the salary-cap fight, but the sides are far apart in financial figures.
Players received 57 percent of hockey-related revenue in the deal that expired Sept. 15, and the NHL wants to bring that number below 50 percent — perhaps as low as 47 percent.
The players’ association, led by Fehr — the former baseball union chief — has rejected that idea.
“The leadership that we have with Don and his team is really trying to look at the big picture and not just a number,” Biron said. “We understand that there is some tweaking and some things that have to be fixed in our proposal, but it seems that the owners are on a one-way mission to cut salaries.”
The NHL claims the union hasn’t done near enough to try to get closer to the league’s proposal and appears willing to wait for the NHLPA to come around.
Daly said the league had already lost $100 million in revenues from canceled preseason games.
The players will begin feeling the real sting when they don’t get their first paychecks of the season Oct. 15.
During the last lockout, Bettman followed through on his vow to cancel the season if a deal wasn’t reached by a February deadline. A new collective bargaining agreement wasn’t completed until July, long after major damage had been done.
It marked the first time a North American professional sport lost an entire season to a labor dispute.
And it was the first time since a flu epidemic in 1919 that the Stanley Cup wasn’t awarded.
Earlier this week, U.S. Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez of New Jersey sent a letter to Bettman and Fehr, urging them to consider the economic impact on their state if the dispute isn’t resolved.
The letter warned that the absence of New Jersey Devils games in Newark could mean millions of dollars in lost economic activity and jobs in especially tough economic times.
The Devils advanced to the Stanley Cup finals last season, creating a financial boost to the city just five months ago.
Now, the lockout comes on the heels of the NBA’s Nets moving from Newark to Brooklyn, N.Y.
Lautenberg renewed his call for a settlement after the games were called off Thursday.
“This cancellation of regular- season hockey games is a blow to businesses and workers in Newark, and in hockey towns across the country,” he said in a statement. “Local jobs and millions of dollars of economic activity are being placed at risk every day that this dispute continues.
“The NHL should keep in mind communities, workers and families that are being hurt by its decision to pursue a lockout and cancel these games. Owners and players must find a way to start the season before the economies in Newark and other communities are further damaged.”