Eight years after becoming the first sports league to have an entire season wiped out by a labour dispute, the NHL is missing meaningful games again.
The first two weeks of the 2012-13 season were officially cancelled on Thursday — the victim of the league’s third lockout in 18 years. In all, 82 games were struck from the calendar through Oct. 24, starting with four on what had been a scheduled opening night of Oct. 11.
Further cancellations are a strong possibility before a new agreement is signed.
Despite negotiating regularly throughout the summer, the NHL and NHL Players’ Association have been unable to make any progress in collective bargaining talks. The lockout is 19 days old and the sides currently don’t have any negotiating sessions scheduled.
Donald Fehr, the NHLPA’s executive director, labelled the lockout and subsequent cancellation of games a “unilateral choice” by owners.
“If the owners truly cared about the game and the fans, they would lift the lockout and allow the season to begin on time while negotiations continue,” Fehr said in a statement. “A lockout should be the last resort in bargaining, not the strategy of first resort. For nearly 20 years, the owners have elected to lock-out the players in an effort to secure massive concessions.”
Deputy commissioner Bill Daly claimed earlier this week that the work stoppage has already cost the league almost US$100 million in lost revenue.
“That is not going to be recouped and that’s going to cost both sides,” Daly said after talks broke off Tuesday in New York. “That’s unfortunate but it’s a reality of where we are.”
It’s only going to get worse now.
The delayed start to the season will ensure players miss the first of 13 paycheques, which were scheduled to go out on Oct. 15. Owners are facing the prospect of empty buildings, missed gates and, in some cases, immediate refunds to season-ticket holders.
Both sides are painfully familiar with the situation because of the league’s troubled labour history. A total of 468 games were lost in 1994-95, with a shortened season starting on Jan. 20, and the entire year was wiped out during the last round of negotiations in 2004-05.
That was the first time the Stanley Cup wasn’t awarded since 1919.
With the industry bracing for another long work stoppage, players have scattered around the globe. More than 100 have already found jobs in Europe — roughly 15 per cent of the union’s total membership — and that number is expected to climb now that meaningful games are gone.
Some were quick to vent their frustration on Twitter after news of the cancellations was released, including reigning Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist. The New York Rangers goalie called on Bettman and Fehr to return to the bargaining table.
“Feels like I’m going to practice without a purpose, and I hate it! Don and Gary, let’s figure this one out! #NHLHockey #theplayers #thefans,” Lundqvist wrote.
Doom and gloom has enveloped the talks in recent weeks and fears seem to be on the rise that another full season could be lost. As recently as the Stanley Cup final in June, that notion seemed unimaginable with the league trumpeting yet another season of record revenues.
However, both sides insist that all is not lost.
They have maintained a regular dialogue and kept the process from getting personal, which is a notable change from 2004-05, and neither seems particularly willing to see the mistakes of the past repeated.
“It’s going to require sitting there and staying with it — even if it’s unpleasant, even if people aren’t saying anything new right away, even if you’d rather be doing something else — until you find a way to do it,” said Fehr. “They haven’t been willing to do that a lot lately. Hopefully, that’ll change.”