NHL Season Could Be in Jeopardy

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Sep. 22) – While there is ample opportunity for the National Hockey League and its players to salvage the 2012-13 season, the calendar could be deceiving.

“The two sides are so entrenched in their positions that nobody can even fathom when they’ll begin substantive negotiation once again,” said a veteran league source early today. “They’re going to try and sort out last year’s Hockey Related Revenue on Monday, but I’m not sure it will lead to a breakthrough. I was involved in the last lockout that canceled the [2004-05] season. There were uncompromising issues with the owners wanting to get rid of [NHLPA leader Bob] Goodenow and insisting on a salary cap. This dispute is about allocating revenue and many people seem to think it won’t be as difficult to resolve. But, that isn’t the prevailing opinion on the inside.”

Detroit Red Wings senior vice-president Jim Devellano has been actively posting his views on social media. When I wrote a blog from Los Angeles on Aug. 18, outlining my belief that the owners can comfortably outlast the players, Devellano chimed in on Facebook: “Very easy to cancel [entire season]. Very easy. Believe me!”

That mindset emerged again this week after Bobby Orr proclaimed on national TV here in Canada that “… there’s a fair deal to be made. I think we’ll get most of the season in. Don and Gary are two smart guys, and there’s so much good in our game right now: from talent, the L.A. market winning the Stanley Cup, the Rangers are going to be strong, there’s so many young players, TV contracts – there’s a lot at stake here. It would be outrageous not to have season.”

Devellano quickly replied on Facebook: “I’m not so certain!!! A deal will happen when it happens; not a moment sooner. Go see the Ontario Hockey League. Or the Marlies!”

The NHL strictly forbids employees from openly discussing the labor dispute and the Red Wings, according to an Associated Press report, have been fined $250,000 for remarks Devellano made to Isand Sports News on Thursday. 

JIM DEVELLANO (RIGHT) WITH DETROIT GM KEN HOLLAND.

The source I talked with explained the league’s position more clearly.

“In 2005, Gary Bettman did not want to cancel the season… he went to the last possible moment [in mid-February] before doing so. Gary had taken the same approach ten years earlier and it almost cost him his job. But, he was able to salvage part of that season [48 games, beginning in January 1995]. When he was forced to cancel the entire [2004-05] schedule, he and the owners learned something valuable: the players had no appetite to lose a full year off their careers. This time around, he has near-unanimous support from the owners to kill the season much earlier. Believe me, there are no pressure-points, including the Jan. 1 game [outdoor Winter Classic].

“I think Jimmy Devellano knows what he’s talking about.”

Further complicating matters, according to my source, is the dissimilarity between Goodenow and Donald Fehr. “With Bob, it became personal. He couldn’t stand Gary and I don’t think he was acting in the best interest of the players when they began to soften. He wasn’t going to accept a salary cap, even if it wiped out two seasons. Fehr is more composed and he has the resume [from baseball] to support his position. I think the players are fighting a lost cause but I’m not sure they’ll fracture as quickly. That’s why this dispute could come to a head much sooner than the last one.”

BETTMAN (LEFT) AND FEHR: STUBBORNLY ENTRENCHED.

The inference is unmistakable: Bettman and Fehr, though not looking to annihilate one another, believe so strongly in their positions that neither man is able to muster a negotiating trigger. Informal gatherings – such as lunch-dates between No. 2 men Bill Daly and Steve Fehr – were so futile, according to my source, they may as well have not happened.

“This isn’t a matter of going for the jugular, as it was in 2005; I think Gary and Don have great respect for one another,” said the source. “But, both sides are philosophically entrenched. The players obviously don’t want to relinquish any more than they did in the last work stoppage. The owners, on the other hand, are saying, ‘Hey, that agreement expired. You aren’t entitled to a carry-over.’

“This thing could just as easily end before it gets started.”

Which is hardly music to the ears of fans and media wishing for a settlement. When asked if the two sides would be open to mediation, my source replied, “It might be more applicable now than in 2005 because there isn’t as much emotion involved. But, I don’t think the owners really care. They have an economic system in mind and they’ll put things on hold until there’s an agreement. In the end, the players will have to decide how much of their careers they want to sacrifice.”

And, where have we heard that before?

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