By the end of the weekend, the National Hockey League will likely be facing the second lockout in the last seven years and the third in commissioner Gary Bettman's 19-year tenure. Each and every owner has agreed lock players out as of midnight Saturday should the NHL Players Association not agree to large pay cut, with both sides still miles from a compromise.
The 2004-05 lockout resulted in the implementation of a salary cap to combat the growing number of obscene contracts in a league with sluggish television ratings and attendance. Before the current collective bargaining agreement, teams spent almost 75 percent of hockey related revenue on players salaries. The owners proposed a massive cut, rolling back to 57 percent of hockey related revenue to be put toward player salaries, and the players eventually accepted a 24 percent rollback in salary. The league returned in the fall of 2005, albeit with less national coverage, with only a few games televised each year on NBC and the rest on Versus. As a result, professional hockey has slowly but surely slipped from national consciousness, and its place among the "big four" American sports is arguably gone -- and with another lockout imminent, hockey will likely never reclaim that spot.
The league board of governors and members of the NHLPA, including hundreds of current players, are in Manhattan this week bickering over how much money the players are willing to concede this time around. Owners want to slash salaries again, proposing that the percentage of hockey related revenue generated by the league allocated to player salaries be dropped from 57 to 47, according to ESPN.
Ten percent might not sound like a lot, but as league revenues have surpassed $3.3 billion in the last year, a 10 percent cut equates to $330 million dollars that the player's union isn't willing to forfeit.
“They just want to take more. Use leverage to squeeze more and see how much can I get out of you? It’s like the bully in the playground saying, I took your peanut butter sandwich, I’m going to take your chocolate chip cookies, too.” Calgary Flames forward Mike Cammalleri told the National Post.
The players have more to lose than the owners, however. Owners believe that the NHLPA will eventually agree to a deal, as a lockout would negatively impact hockey related revenue, and in turn, knock down salaries anyway. Players are holding firm as a matter of principle, and so far meetings between the two sides have produced nothing.
Though there's still an ample amount of time to save the 2012-2013 season, which is scheduled to begin October 11th, there doesn't seem to be the same frantic drive to make a deal as there was with the recent NFL and NBA lockouts. Owners seem to believe that fans of the league, having already suffered through a lockout just a few years ago, won't desert the NHL if yet another season is lost. Although that may be true, it also confirms that owners are fine with pigeonholing hockey as a niche sport -- one that will exist more or less solely to serve fans already living in NHL cities who show up to arenas, not the United States at large. It's a shame, because playoff hockey is undoubtedly one of the most intense viewing experiences in all of sports, but it's a reality the NHL is surprisingly okay with.