Russo: Plenty of blame, but fewer NHL games

  • Article by: WILD INSIDER MICHAEL RUSSO
  • Updated: October 27, 2012 - 8:26 AM

The league has just scrapped the first 27 percent of the season, and there is no hint of progress.

The NHL has canceled the entire November schedule -- 191 more games -- meaning nearly 27 percent (326 games) of the season is gone.

That will cost the Wild 23 games. And the league is days from canceling its signature event, the Winter Classic on New Year's Day.

Rhetoric continues, and both sides are assigning blame.

But, as NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman stated before the lockout began, "It takes two sides to make a deal, two sides to negotiate, and two sides to make it go bad."

And he's right.

The work stoppage is costing the league revenue and goodwill. It is costing the players large salaries and a portion of their limited careers. It is affecting arena workers, team employees and local businesses.

And it is costing the fans the sport they love.

So the question for the league, and for the NHL Players' Association (NHLPA), is: "How does this thing get resolved?"

Owners can't answer, because they would be fined by Bettman.

Players are depending on their union boss to negotiate an acceptable settlement. With many of their careers in jeopardy, they are probably eager to get an answer from NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, an answer to this key question:

"What's the end game?"

The players, who can talk on the issues, don't seem to know the answer. Minnesota-based skaters can probably get some enlightenment when Fehr meets with them Monday in Minneapolis.

Let's look at the major issue.

The owners want an immediate 50-50 revenue split. Fehr has rejected that, proposing the players' share is higher, then offering a gradual reduction to 50-50 as revenues grow. The owners, in turn, rejected that.

But if Fehr is unwilling to accept an immediate 50-50 split when league revenues are more than $3 billion, as they were last season, what will he do when revenues crumble?

Fehr spent his entire Major League Baseball union life fighting against the salary cap, and he succeeded. If that is Fehr's intention here -- and he has intimated that it is -- the hiatus likely will grow longer.

The salary cap, to owners, is the equivalent of guaranteed contracts to players. And to the league, besides cost certainty, it delivers a level playing field. The owners will not give up the salary cap.

Still, players signed contracts mutually agreed to by owners. Morally, ethically, the players feel they deserve every cent.

But while players refuse pay cuts, the fact is they are about to take irretrievable cuts by being locked out for a long time. They have said they would lose $1.65 billion over a six-year period, but they will lose more than that this season if no hockey is played.

That doesn't seem to make sense, since the players still stand to make a lot of money by accepting a 50-50 split, even if revenues grow at a modest rate.

Since July, Fehr has caused the owners to negotiate against themselves, moving from an initial 43 percent player share proposal to 50-50. But the players lost leverage the moment the league scrapped an 82-game season.

The Wild alone loses a $1.1 million gate for every home game canceled.

The NHL shut down the 2004-05 season to get its salary cap, so the players are going against owners who have shown they will take extreme measures, a group that doesn't mind being "the bad guy." And those owners appear willing to shut down a season again to ensure a 50-50 split in revenues.

Wild veteran Matt Cullen, who lost that season eight years ago, wants both sides to return to the bargaining table because he feels a deal is close.

"We're now on a slippery road. It's a scary thing," Cullen said. "I really hope that we can get this back on the rails. ... I think all of us understand that the window is very short before this thing can get really ugly. ... It sure seems like it would be an absolute shame to lose more hockey when we're so close. Just get in the same room and get this thing hammered out."

Michael Russo • mrusso@startribune.com

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