With all signs pointing to a lockout commencing with the expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement Saturday, the question in recent days hasn’t been if there will be a stoppage, but rather how long one might last.
To hear Capitals forward Brooks Laich tell it, the players are more galvanized than ever and fully prepared for a lengthy standoff.
“It’s not like this has just come upon us,” said Laich, who is the Capitals’ NHLPA representative. “We had CBA prep meetings as far back as two years ago — the players are prepared. Last time we thought we got the raw end of the deal and we have to fight this time.
“At some point you have to dig your heels in and fight,” Laich added. “If we don’t this time, then what happens next? Appeasement only makes the aggressor more aggressive, and the players really understand that. We believe in our cause and our leadership and I believe we’re more unified this time and ready for a fight.”
To end the 2004-05 lockout, which saw the cancellation of that entire season, the players agreed to implement a salary cap and a 24 percent rollback in salaries.
During these negotiations, owners have requested that players take immediate salary cuts again, whether through a rollback or escrow funds. The NHLPA has bristled at any suggestion of salary cuts and Laich echoed frustration that owners are asking for rollbacks on currently existing contracts.
“We believe in our cause,” Laich said. “Any conversation starting with a rollback of player salary is the end of the conversation. When they start with that that’s the end of the conversation. That’s why we are where we are.”
Given his faith in the union’s willingness to fight for a mutually beneficial deal, Laich was asked if the players would be willing to sacrifice a season for their cause.
“If that’s what it means,” Laich said. “Players have long memories. One, it’s the financial part of it, that they want to roll back our contracts is the financial part which is going to make anybody — I don’t care what business you’re in — kick a fire under a lot of people.
“The second part of it, which maybe goes overlooked, is that every contract ends with a handshake. Every single contract,” Laich continued. “Where I come from, you honor your handshakes and you have your word. If you don’t have that you have nothing. If I make a bad deal, sign a bad contract that’s my fault. And I accept that, I’m a man and I work through that. That’s something I deal with. I don’t go crying foul and looking for somebody to fix my mistakes. I accept that as a man, that I made a bad decision. I think that hockey players are pretty honest people and they don’t like it when it’s coming back the other way.”
Laich said he plans on remaining in Washington to continue skating and training at least for the immediate future. He has thought about possibly playing overseas if there is a lengthy lockout, though.
“I grew up loving the game of hockey not loving the NHL,” Laich said. “All players, we want to play hockey. The beauty of the game today is it’s a global game and there’s other opportunities.”
In referencing a comment NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman made in August about how the league recovered from the 2004-05 lockout “because we have the world’s greatest fans,” Laich floated a hypothetical scenario of what could happen once a lockout begins.
“What happens if the lockout comes and Sept. 16, the top 100 players in the world sign over in Europe for a year-long contract? Then what? Is the game going to return?” Laich said. “The fans are coming to see the players, not coming to see the owners.
“The top players are always going to play, there’s always going to be a spot for them,” he said. “This is the most competitive and toughest league to make in the world. This is where the best hockey players are, so if they’re available other teams are going to come calling.”
As has been the case with every player I’ve spoken with, Laich expressed complete confidence in Donald Fehr calling the NHLPA’s executive director a “shark” and someone he trusts completely to negotiate an agreeable deal. Unfortunately, if the players’ resolve is as strong as Laich says, it doesn’t appear as though this labor dispute will resolve itself quickly.
“Players are passionate. They’re going to fight and they’re not going to give in. We believe in our leadership,” Laich said, reiterating that the NHLPA has requested to negotiate without disrupting the season calendar, while the owners have opted for a lockout.
“At the end of the day,” Laich said, “a lockout is what happens when adults get in the way of a kids’ game and it’s truly a shame if we miss one day. It’s truly a shame.”