Capitals forward Brooks Laich prepared all summer as if he would be playing hockey next week. But if the NHL Players’ Association is as resolute as Laich claims that is unlikely to happen.
NHL owners and players have until 11:59 p.m. on Saturday to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement. Otherwise, the league has said it will impose its third lockout since 1994 on the players and training camps will not open on time. The NHL missed an entire season in 2004-05 thanks to a work stoppage and – while a repeat of that scenario remains unthinkable to many involved in the sport – both sides appear willing to miss months of games to get what they want.
“If that’s what it means,” Laich said after an informal workout on Friday at Kettler Iceplex. “Players have long memories.”
And they remember the 24-percent rollback in salaries owners imposed on them during the last negotiations and the implementation of a salary cap for the first time. The NHLPA isn’t seeking to overturn the cap system right now, but they are adamant that another rollback won’t happen.
“We believe in our cause. Any conversation starting with a rollback of player salary is the end of the conversation,” Laich said. “If they start with that that’s the end of it. We’re not going to accept that.”
Of course, similar statements were made about a salary cap and the NHLPA eventually had to concede to one before the NHL began play again in 2005-06. Once owners start missing revenue from canceled preseason games and players start missing game checks in October the tenor of the negotiations could change. But by all accounts, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, once the head of Major League Baseball’s powerful union, has vastly improved communication with his constituents.
The organization has held meetings with players in cities all across North America this summer and began planning for a potential lockout as far back as two years ago, according to Laich. The players appear far more in harmony than they were during the 2004-05 lockout.
“Having worked with Donald Fehr, I believe he’s the tip of the sword in sports labor negotiations,” Laich said. “He is a shark and if there’s a deal to get done, he will able to make it. And if there’s not a deal, he’s not going to make a bad deal on our part.”
Laich insisted that players want to begin the season on time with their NHL teams. But if not there are opportunities to play in Europe. What would happen, he wondered, if the 100 best NHL players simply went elsewhere to play for a season and the league tried to open on time with a lesser product? Would the fans still be excited to have hockey return? His point: The players are the show. The owners, of course, argue that they are supplying the infrastructure to put one on in the first place and taking all of the financial risk to do so. From that perspective each side negotiates what it considers a fair piece of the NHL’s record $3.3 billion in revenues last season. That is up from $2.1 billion before the last lockout.
“Players are passionate, they’re going to fight and they’re not going to give in,” Laich said. “Like I said, we believe in our leadership. But at the end of the day a lockout is what happens when adults get in the way of a kid’s game. And it’s truly shame if we miss one day. It’s truly a shame.”
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