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By Steve Lichtenstein
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All hockey fans want for Christmas is a season.
This seems to be the week where we’ll find out whether Santa will save us, or if we landed on his naughty list.
Unfortunately, though I may have been a pretty good boy this year, I don’t believe that the issues weighing over the NHL lockout — now in Day number 82 — will be resolved by mystical beings. I continue to be among the most pessimistic, despite the media reports of some movement from the owners during Wednesday night’s meetings at the Westin Hotel in Times Square.
The owners may have succumbed to the spirit of the giving season for one night, reportedly increasing their ante of the “Make Whole” provisions (for contracts that they previously signed) to $300 million from the previous offer of $211 million. They also retreated from their age-restriction demands as related to free agency and arbitration rights.
But significant chasms remain, particularly those concerning subsequent contract terms. The owners seem to think they can forge an agreement with the players solely if both sides keep their respective consiglieres, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and Players Association executive director Donald Fehr, out of the meeting rooms.
Talk about a fantasy.
No, the owners are going to have to engage Fehr, possibly as soon as Thursday. The owners have not been shy in their attempts to demonize the union leader in their battle to alter public opinion. While Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs has been not-so-inaccurately portrayed as a modern-day Scrooge for his militant stands towards the players, there have been scant mentions of Fehr’s tactics, and almost nothing on how this Grinch stole a season during his tenure in charge of Major League Baseball’s union.
Not that anyone should have heeded my warnings, but I knew that the union’s hiring of Fehr two years ago was a sign that the NHL was destined for their fourth work stoppage in 20 years. The owners, who had been used to getting their way in past negotiations, never bothered to change their stripes and badly bungled their relationship with Fehr from the outset. The union was merely bracing for another long fight.
In addition, the owners did not account for how the NHL’s diversity, a major contributor to the league’s growth over the last decade, has come back to haunt them now. Yes, it’s great that the best players in the world want to work in North America, but they’re not tied to it. About 200 players — nearly 30 percent of the league — are earning incomes overseas, according to reports, albeit without the high profiles and lifestyles of the NHL. There’s still time for others to flee if the season is lost.
This is quite different from the situations of the players affected by the recent NFL and NBA lockouts. The vast majority of those players are unable or unwilling to find comparable employment, and are more likely to cave following the abdication of a few paychecks.
That’s not going to happen here, at least not this soon. The players are well-equipped and funded. (The NHLPA recently announced that they will be issuing $10,000 stipends to all players.)
So as much as I would like to believe that this gets settled soon, I’m stuck in “Bah Humbug” mode. My apologies for dampening your holiday mood.
I still think we’re headed for the courts, where recent history has not been kind to those owning professional sports franchises. I think Fehr has been dying to get in front of judges to cement his legacy. I don’t know how the NHL attorneys can explain, for instance, how their clients in Minnesota and Nashville put their signatures on those exorbitant contracts for Zach Parise and Shea Weber over the summer and now demand a rebate.
The owners and players exited the conference room around 1 a.m. on Thursday morning with a new offer to consider, but no agreement. Maybe if this happened in say, September, there would be reason for optimism. But we’re running out of time.
It will take a true Miracle on 42nd Street for fans to see hockey by Christmas.
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We’re willing to bet that many of you — if not all — feel exactly the same way. Sound off with your thoughts and comments below…