It might be the only taste of hockey for months.
There’s no telling when the NHL lockout will end, especially when neither the league nor the NHL Players Association has committed to face-to-face negotiations to end the labor unrest.
There were no formal talks Sunday on the first day of the lockout, the league’s fourth shutdown since 1992, including a yearlong dispute that forced the cancellation of the entire 2004-05 season when the league successfully held out for a salary cap.
And there are no formal talks planned.
The league issued a statement to fans on its Web site that it was “committed to negotiating around the clock to reach a new CBA that is fair to the players and to the 30 NHL teams.”
The clock is ticking and there’s no new collective bargaining agreement in sight.
The league could start to announce this week the cancellation of preseason games and there’s little chance training camps will open on time. The regular season is scheduled to begin Oct. 11, but that is in peril.
Day 1 of the lockout could serve as a preview for the next several cold months: Empty rinks, empty talk.
“This is a time of year for all attention to be focused on the ice, not on a meeting room,” the league said. “The league, the clubs and the players all have a stake in resolving our bargaining issues appropriately and getting the puck dropped as soon as possible. We owe it to each other, to the game and, most of all, to the fans.”
Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, Chicago’s Jonathan Toews and Colorado’s Gabriel Landeskog were among the players participating in an NHLPA video to fans that was posted on YouTube. With black-and-white photos of each player as a backdrop, they talked about how much the game meant to them, and thanked fans for their support.
“We understand the people that suffer the most are the fans,” Crosby said.
Some players won’t wait for labor talks to pick up – they’ve already packed up.
As of Sunday morning, all NHL players were free to speak to other leagues. Many will land in Russia’s KHL, and two big names already signed. Pittsburgh center Evgeni Malkin and Ottawa defenseman Sergei Gonchar agreed to deals with Metallurg. More will surely follow.
Malkin, a 26-year-old center with the Penguins, is the NHL’s reigning MVP. The 38-year-old Gonchar is a defenseman who helped lead the Senators to the playoffs last season.
Although the club provided no further details of their contracts, it said that they would comply with KHL regulations on signing NHL players during the lockout. Under these rules, KHL teams can sign a maximum of three NHL players above their limit of 25.
The KHL also sets the ceiling for the salaries of NHL players at a maximum of 65 percent of what they earn under their NHL deals. Malkin has two years and $16.5 million remaining on his deal with Pittsburgh. Gonchar has one year and $5.5 million left with Ottawa.
Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen and forward Scott Hartnell are part owners of a team in the Finnish league. Timonen, a father of three children, said it would be hard to immediately consider playing overseas unless the entire season was wiped out. But Timonen returned to his native Finland to play in 2004, and clearly understands why some young players are interested in finding a roster spot in Europe.
“A lot of young guys are asking if there’s a spot to play,” he said. “I’m sure our team can take a few of the guys, but not many.”
Many of the players, 25 years and younger, could end up in the AHL, the NHL’s primary minor league. No matter where they play, the players are prepared for a lengthy wait to return to the NHL.
The core issue is money – how to split a $3.3 billion pot of revenue. The owners want to decrease the percentage of hockey-related revenue that goes to players, while the union wants a guarantee that players annually get at least the $1.8 billion in salaries paid out last season.
While the NHL lockout might not destroy the whole season – like in 2004-05 – a sizable chunk of games could be lost without any productive talks on tap.
“I’m sure we will remain in contact,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said. “But there are no negotiations planned or scheduled at this point.”
Teams are prepared for the likelihood the season will not start on time. And so they are making economic plans on several fronts. At the end of each month, for instance, the Buffalo Sabres will refund any games that are canceled by the NHL.
The Minnesota Wild, meanwhile, fresh off a free-agent spending spree that landed them forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Sutter, will send out ticket policies on Monday.
“We support the league’s position and trust our NHL negotiating team is looking out for the long-term interests of the game,” the Wild said in a statement. “Even as NHL games may be missed, the Wild will continue to support the great sport of hockey at all levels through our grass roots partnerships with amateur hockey associations.”
Minnesota defenseman Steven Kampfer was fired up to report for training part in part to see what it would look like to have those prized free agents – Parise and Suter <0x2014> in uniform to ignite a franchise that missed the playoffs last season.
“It was going to be really exciting to see our lineup with those two acquisitions,” Kampfer said. “I guess we’ll just have to wait a little longer.”
Parise and Suter signed on the same day in July as the Wild made a statement to the rest of the league that they wanted to be true players in the Western Conference. But that will have to wait.
“It’s a frustration situation to go through because you never want a work stoppage,” Kampfer said. “But we’re trying to fight for what’s fair for both the owners and players. Everybody wants more money. The owners want to keep more of their profits and the players want their fair share of the profits. As players, we have full confidence that (NHLPA executive director) Donald Fehr will do his job to get us the best deal that he can.”
For now, most teams seem to be stable financially. The cancellation of games may change that, but for the time being, the panic button has not been pushed. Penguins spokesman Tom McMillan, for example, said the team has no plans on layoffs “at this time.”
In jeopardy are some key dates on the calendar: the New Year’s Day outdoor Winter Classic at 115,000-seat Michigan Stadium between the host Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs; and the Jan. 27 All-Star game hosted by the Columbus Blue Jackets, one of the league’s struggling small-market teams.
The Blue Jackets put out a statement Sunday supporting the league, but did not mention the All-Star game.
“The league, the clubs and the players all have a stake in resolving our bargaining issues appropriately and getting the puck dropped as soon as possible,” the team said. “We owe it to each other, to the game, and most of all, to the fans.”
NHL players struck in April 1992, causing 30 games to be postponed. This marks the third lockout under Commissioner Gary Bettman. The 1994-95 lockout ended after 103 days and the cancellation of 468 games.
“Like any partnership, you want both sides to benefit,” Crosby said in the video. “I think that’s the case here. As players we want to play.
“But we also know what’s right, what’s fair.”