Alas, the moment hockey fans feared would come has arrived. September 15th, the deadline for NHL owners and NHLPA to agree on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, has passed, thus beginning the second NHL work stoppage in exactly eight years. Last time around, it took a cancelled season to galvanize productive discourse between the two groups. What can NHL fans expect from labor negotiations this time around?
To start, any notions of an expedient process are, in my opinion, unfounded. If the hockey world knows anything about the two negotiating parties (league commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Director Donald Fehr), it is that both are willing to wait to get what they want. They have each experienced prolonged lockouts before (Fehr during his stint as the MLBPA Director; Bettman eight years ago with the NHL), and based on the stalemate from this summer’s discussions, neither side seems willing to concede yet. With no new deadline in place, I expect it will take some time before the two sides engage in anything meaningful.
While Fehr and the players are currently displaying a strong, unified front (there were over 200 players in New York last week as a sign of solidarity), I believe that once paychecks are forfeited, the players’ position will weaken. Until the players actually lose something, they have no reason not to take a firm stand on the issues they consider most important. Similarly, the league will not want to renege on the Winter Classic, its most profitable and popular day of the regular season. Once it believes that the fate of this event could be in jeopardy, the NHL will see the benefits of reaching an agreement.
I see these two factors pushing the equilibrium of the newly born 2012 lockout towards an early winter resolution. A year ago, the NBA ended its lockout by beginning the season on Christmas Day. One should expect a similar outcome with the NHL given the timing of the Winter Classic. Of course, time will tell with these two strong-willed negotiating leaders. They have shown the capacity to cancel an entire season, so optimism must be tempered to a degree. But with so much at stake in the current negotiations, I see this work stoppage ending in time so the puck can drop for the 2013 NHL Winter Classic in Detroit.