x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Stand-off holds up the NHL face-off

Your turn, National Hockey League. Just as training camps are about to open, you have posted a no trespassing sign, directed at players.

Jordan Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes cuts a lonely figure in the locker room last week.
Jordan Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes cuts a lonely figure in the locker room last week.

This time of year, a slight chill infiltrates the breezes that blow across much of America, often signalling the renewal of a tradition: a work stoppage within a professional sport.

Your turn, National Hockey League. Just as training camps are about to open, you have posted a no trespassing sign, directed at players.

Heartiest congratulations, pucksters. Among the four most fervently followed North American sports, yours is the least popular. Yet, over the past two decades, you are the undisputed champions for labour strife, with four interruptions - ahead of the other autumn pastimes, football and basketball, plus baseball in the spring.

(Bonus points, however, to the NFL, which managed to lock out the players last season and has done the same to the officials this season.)

The root of all such discord is money. In hockey's case, it is pretty much the sole issue.

Straight out of the playbook for seemingly all leagues, the NHL's team owners aspire to reduce the amount of revenue they disburse to the uniformed hired help. Their initial bid was to cut from 57 per cent to 43, which required a lot of nerve given that hockey-related income has increased about half again since just before the previous disruption eight years ago, the one that cost the whole of the 2004/05 season.

The union countered with 53 per cent in its favour. Management is believed amenable to a more even split, perhaps 53 per cent its way, but is disinclined to move too far to the middle in order to stay simpatico with its brethren in other sports.

The NBA divides the pie virtually in half, while the take by NFL players officially shrank last year from 50 to 47 per cent, although an accounting change mitigated part of their giveback. Major League Baseball observes no defined revenue sharing, but the players' portion reportedly has dipped south of 50 per cent.

With the first pucks scheduled to be dropped on October 11, ticket holders need not line up babysitters anytime soon.

No deal is imminent, and none appears likely before the ice naturally starts freezing in the more wintry states.

Players benefit from an option largely unavailable to their colleagues in other sports: a well-paying alternative in European leagues.

During the last hiatus, about half of them found work overseas, many in or near their native lands, which curbed any longing for the NHL. It was hardly coincidence that the stoppage lasted 310 days, the longest in the annals of American sport.

The exodus has already begun, led by the reigning MVP Evgeni Malkin, who signed quicker than a slap shot once the lockout took effect. Ilya Kovalchuk and Jaromir Jagr are among luminaries who followed suit, all with the discretion of circling back to the USA once labour peace resumes.

The identities of both sides' captains also hint to an extended stand-off.

In the players' corner is Donald Fehr, who presided over the baseball players' union during two strikes (one brief, one not) and a lockout. That the union was generally declared the victor with all three resolutions suggests that Fehr will be digging in his wing-tipped heels, particularly since the skaters failed to stave off a salary cap instituted after the most recent impasse.

In the owners' corner is Gary Bettman, the commissioner who takes his cues from having served at the elbow of the hard-line NBA commander-in-chief David Stern.

Each camp finds comfort knowing that hockey fans are a forgiving bunch who have turned the cheek enough through past droughts to render themselves dizzy. After the last protracted pause in the action, attendance records were set.

Neither party senses an urgency to compromise. Aside from the lost wages, worn down players generally do not mind seeing several weeks shaved off the schedule. (Didn't the Stanley Cup finals end just the other night?) On opening (or non-opening) day, every player will pocket an escrow cheque amounting to eight per cent of last year's salaries. That should keep the bill collectors at bay for awhile.

As for the owners, their primary national television game coverage does not commence until late November. Their ideal, if not drop-dead, resumption date is January 1 for the annual outdoor Winter Classic, this one in a 115,000-seat stadium. Or by the January 27 All-Star Game in Columbus, Ohio, a hockey outpost that could use a booster shot to ensure its franchise's survival. With any sport, empty and darkened arenas cause less suffering among the rich athletes and the filthy rich owners than for the working stiffs who rely on games to make a living, the ticket takers, the vendors, the clean-up crews and, in a job wonderfully unique to hockey, the Zamboni drivers.

What must they think about all of the empty talk and fake negotiating between the two blocs as winds blowing across the country carry increasing coolness?

That it is all just so much hot air.