Even though NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Monday he hopes labour negotiations resume this week, the situation has an all-too-familiar feel to those who suffered through the season-long lockout seven years ago.
With the lockout hitting Day 10 on Tuesday both sides reached the stage where they are sending behind-the-scenes threats to each other through the media. The NHL struck first when at least one of its top executives whispered to a few reporters late last week that commissioner Gary Bettman would cancel the Winter Classic by mid-November even though the outdoor game is scheduled for Jan. 1.
The idea was to warn the NHL Players' Association that the owners are so committed to slashing the players' share of the NHL's $3.3-billion (all currency U.S.) in annual revenue they are willing to sacrifice one of the most important events of the season. The conventional wisdom is the lockout will end in December because the owners do not want to lose the Winter Classic, which brings the NHL a lot of media exposure in the U.S. along with a nice whack of cash.
The players, in turn, said they will not be surprised if the entire season is wiped out by the owners' lockout. It was hard not to conclude this was an orchestrated response to the threat of losing the outdoor game.
Daniel Cleary of the Detroit Red Wings issued this warning through the Detroit Free Press: "I think people don't think it can go a year. As players, we think it can. Maybe longer." His teammate Niklas Kronwall added this comforting thought: "Well, it could be. It could be two years. But I think everybody is looking to end this sooner rather than later."
In other words, make all the veiled threats you like NHL owners, we will not give in like last time when you got your salary cap. At least Kronwall, like Daly, added an optimistic note.
Daly came out of Monday's meeting with the NHLPA, which was about the final disposition of the hockey-related revenue for 2011-12, to say labour issues were not discussed but he hopes talks will resume this week.
"We're 100-per-cent focused on not missing any regular-season games and hopefully we can achieve that objective," he said.
However, Daly also made it clear the NHL is only willing to come back to the table if the players have a new proposal. There is no indication that is the case. Steve Fehr, the NHLPA's special counsel, declined to comment after Monday's meeting.
"I think it's fair to say we feel like we need to hear from the players' association in a meaningful way because I don't think they've really moved off their initial proposal, which was made more than a month ago," Daly said.
Neither Bettman nor NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr attended Monday's meeting. But both were expected to be at the annual NHL alumni dinner Monday night in Toronto.
Daly said he expected all concerned will touch base at the dinner but the most that can be expected is an agreement to keep talking about the chance of resuming negotiations. While this may not sound like much, it at least shows this lockout lacks the bitterness of the last one. So far, anyway.
"I like to think it's light years," Daly said of the difference. "We've been talking within the same framework. We've had a lot of discussions about a lot of ground in the other areas we need to. Obviously there's the financial divide we need to bridge."
One bit of business was accomplished on Monday as both sides agreed on the final accounting of the record $3.3-billion revenue the NHL took in last season. The excellent financial results mean the players will get back almost all of the 8.5 per cent of their salaries that was held in escrow last season. Under the former collective agreement, a portion of salaries was always held in escrow to ensure the players' share of revenue worked out to 57 per cent.
Daly said the players will get "99 point something" returned of the 8.5 per cent of their salaries that was withheld last season. For a player who made $2-million in 2011-12, that means a refund of about $170,000 before deductions, which will come in October when pay cheques will start to be missed if the lockout continues.