NHL Source: Season in “Grave Jeopardy”

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Nov. 19) – The pessimistic tone of the NHL lockout – on the cusp of a bargaining session planned for New York – made a bit more sense to me after chatting, earlier today, with a high-placed league source.

“Unless the players come off their stance on contract issues in the very near future, the prospect of a shortened schedule is unlikely,” I was told. “It isn’t a stretch – in my opinion – to say the [2012-13] season is in grave jeopardy.”

That may not come as a bulletin. What I was next told, however, did catch me off guard. “I spoke on the weekend with a high-ranking player and a well-known player agent,” said my source. “They echoed the same thought – that players are willing to sacrifice the season unless the league moves off its contract demands. I’m sure they weren’t speaking for the entire NHLPA membership, but they did reflect the strategy of Donald Fehr.  I will tell you – as I told them: There isn’t much wiggle room on the league’s part. Unless Fehr comes back with some new ideas, the players may get their ‘wish’.”

The willingness of Gary Bettman (and at least eight NHL owners) to cancel another full schedule dates to an assertion by Jim Devellano in mid-summer. Before Jimmy D was silenced by a $250,00 fine issued the Detroit Red Wings – for whom he is senior vice-president – he adamantly claimed the “season is easy to cancel – very easy, believe me.” Devellano posted his thoughts on Facebook in August. It seems little has changed in the ensuing months.

HOPE FOR A QUICK LOCKOUT SETTLEMENT IS BLEAK.

For sure, there appears to be an escalation of militancy between the two sides, with the lockout now in its tenth week. The NHL is likely to cancel games through at least mid-December by Thursday afternoon.

“I’ve been through all three lockouts and I’ve seen negotiation turn unexpectedly,” said the source. “But, I’m not confident it will happen here anytime soon. The players appear to be digging in, which is not in their best interests. We’ll see if they have something different to propose later today.”

As in all labor skirmishes, distinguishing between substance and rhetoric is nearly impossible. I remember covering the marathon session in New York that ultimately saved 48 games of the 1994-95 season. There was absolutely no indication of a settlement until minutes before it was announced. In fact, reporters were merely awaiting official word the season had been canceled; such was the foregone conclusion among those gathered in the Crowne Plaza Manhattan on Jan. 10 and 11, 1995. We all know how that turned out.

So, closing the door on any possibility in the current labor mess is probably unwise. But, there are severe obstacles to overcome – primarily those that involve contract restrictions the owners are demanding (term limit, free agent eligibility, arbitration procedure, entry-level salary).

Many observers felt an agreement on splitting revenue down the middle would quickly resolve the stalemate. We now know it is far-more complex than that. Can there be amendments in time to save a reasonable schedule? That prospect appears to change from week to week.

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