NHL Armageddon 2012: it’s always darkest before the dawn

The week that wasn’t for the National Hockey League could be categorized as somewhere between an unmitigated disaster and the end of the world as the NHL once knew it. Reports suggest the NHL Players Association is looking at decertifying their union, several NHL players have taken to Twitter to threaten the life of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, these are the worst of times for the NHL – the end indeed be a lot closer than anyone had ever imagined.

A week ago the NHLPA presented the NHL with an offer, a proposal that was summarily rejected by Bettman and his management team Wednesday.

"I think it's frustrating for everybody and disappointing for everybody that's it's taken this long and we're still far apart," said Bettman, in his third lockout as commissioner.

"On the big things there was as of today no reciprocity in any meaningful sense, no movement on the players' share, no movement on salary-arbitration eligibility, no movement on free agency eligibility, no agreement on a pension plan," union head Donald Fehr said.

The NHLPA did move in the direction the NHL wants the players to be, just not quite close enough for the NHL to agree on a new collective bargaining agreement.

"We have moved far more than halfway," Fehr said. "It is about as good as we can do.

"Gary said we were $900 million or $1 billion apart," Fehr said, referring to the gap over a five-year deal. "At the moment we are exactly $182 million apart."

Friday, the NHL canceled games through December 14, along with the 2013 NHL All-Star Weekend that had been scheduled for Columbus.

A total of 422 regular-season games – 34.3 percent of the season – were scheduled for Oct. 11 through Dec. 14.

“The reality of losing more regular-season games as well as the 2013 NHL All-Star Weekend in Columbus is extremely disappointing,” said NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly. “We feel badly for NHL fans and particularly those in Columbus, and we intend to work closely with the Blue Jackets organization to return the NHL All-Star events to Columbus and their fans as quickly as possible.”

“On Wednesday, the players presented a comprehensive proposal, once again moving in the owners’ direction in order to get the game back on the ice. The gap that remains on the core economic issues is $182 million. On Wednesday, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said that the league is losing $18-20 million per day during the lockout, therefore two more weeks of cancelled games far exceeds the current economic gap. It makes the NHL’s announcement of further game cancellations, including the 2013 All-Star Weekend, all the more unnecessary, and disappointing for all hockey fans – especially those in Columbus. The players remain ready to negotiate but we require a willing negotiating partner.” NHLPA executive director Don Fehr offered Friday after the league announced the cancelation of additional games and the All-Star Weekend.

The most important words Fehr said in his statement: “The players remain ready to negotiate but we require a willing negotiating partner.”

Why are those words so? If the NHLPA believes the NHL is NOT a willing negotiating partner the suggestion the NHLPA could move to decertify could become reality, and if that were to take place – all bets are off; the NHL will truly be facing Armageddon.

If the NHLPA dissolves (their union or association whatever the group is) Fehr and whatever leadership is left will begin a complex series of legal maneuvering focused on targeting anti-trust legislation in the United States (there are 23 American based NHL teams and seven located in Canada).

According to most legal experts if the lockout gets declared to be a violation of U.S. antitrust law then the players’ damages are going to be tripled, however that is a lot easier said than done. It could take years for the case to move through the legal system – that won’t help remedy what is taking place right now. And there are a different set of labor laws in Canada where seven of the NHL’s 30 franchises call home.

Current player NHL contracts – all become null and void, everything becomes subject to individual negotiations. The NHL entry system – the draft, ceases to exist.

“If [the negotiations go] in this direction, it certainly makes the cancellation of the season much more likely, because it’s going to delay things in all likelihood,” says Michael McCann, a law professor at the University of Vermont who specializes in sports law and writes about legal issues for Sports Illustrated in a Canadian Business report.

“Because then court papers are going to be filed, hearings will be scheduled. Courts move slowly—they don’t respond to the wishes of leagues and players in terms of scheduling.”

A year ago the National Basketball Association embroiled in a lockout with the NBA Players Association reached a settlement with the NBAPA 12 days after the NBAPA voted to decertify. Last year the National Football League Players Association tried a similar tactic in advance of their settlement with the NFL that resulted in a 10-year CBA.

“Now, the purpose of the union is not so much to prevent exploitation, but it’s really to protect the owners,” Ron Klempner, associate general counsel of the NBPA, said in May. “The purpose of decertification, if we do it the next time, will be because the collective-bargaining process has pretty much run its course in professional sports,” he added.

Neither side is winning the public relations battle; both sides have failed miserably in gaining any public sympathy. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly continues to speak on behalf of the management side for the most part, Don and Steve Fehr on the NHLPA side. The owners and management are under a Gary Bettman imposed ‘gag’ order, say anything and face a six figure fine.

There are more than 700 current NHL players. Don Fehr hasn’t been able to control what the players have been saying to the media and in particular on Twitter. While it may only a take a few apples to spoil a barrel, the actions of a few NHL players have served to embarrass NHL players.

Chicago Blackhawks center Dave Bolland Friday reposted a Twitter entry that read: "can I get a RT for wanting Bettman dead?"

The retweet later was deleted.

"It was a mistake, I never meant to retweet that out," Bolland told ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun. "I like to retweet for a lot of my fans, and I just retweeted the wrong thing. I feel bad about it."

Detroit Red Wings defenseman Ian White recently called Bettman an "idiot," and Florida Panthers forward Kris Versteeg referred to Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly as "cancers."

Jeff O'Neill who last played in the National Hockey League five years ago alleges that his Twitter account was “hacked” Wednesday after a Tweet appeared on O’Neill’s Twitter account “make whole’ in Gary Bettman’s head”. O’Neill then tweeted “My last tweet was inappropriate. Someone hacked my acct.”

There can and will be a settlement in the NHL’s current labor wars. The wasn’t going to be a settlement before American Thanksgiving and it doesn’t appear if one is reached to save at least part of the 2012-13 NHL season it be in the immediate future. It will take a few more weeks before anything might happen and those few weeks will include anger, frustration and threats.

Forget about the players’ anger and frustration. It’s only to get worse later this week when the players miss their fifth paycheck. Forget about “media reports” that suggested there was a crack in the owners resolve that focused on Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider. A week later after an angry Snider denied the report, the Philadelphia Daily News report doesn’t appear to have much substance to it. Does Ed Snider want to see a settlement reached – of course he does as do the other 28 NHL team owners (remember the NHL owns the Phoenix Coyotes).

The two sides are closer today than they were a week ago. Forget about the rhetoric, ignore the bluster and focus on this and this alone. The NHL and the NHLPA are reading the same book “finally”; they are not on the same page yet, but least they’re reading the same book. Gary Bettman and Don Fehr want to reach an agreement; they remain steadfast in what is in the best interest of their respective side they represent.

Much sooner rather than later the Bettman and Fehr will understand if they don’t work towards an agreement, if the NHL cancels the entire 2012-13 season the fallout will beyond belief, the current NHL will cease to exist.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom