NHL-union battle leaves fans out in cold


As the lockout gets underway, Capitals star Alex Ovechkin is expected to sign with the Kontinental Hockey League soon — though when and which team remains uncertain. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
September 16, 2012

As the NHL hurtled toward its third lockout in 18 years Saturday night, there was little recourse for fans. Some held protests in various North American cities, others simply sought to commiserate with like-minded souls about having to start fall without hockey – again.

Roughly 100 people, most of them Washington Capitals fans, gathered at the Front Page in Arlington to rock the red and dampen their disappointment that the NHL and players’ union failed to reach an agreement that would allow training camps and the 2012-13 season to proceed as scheduled. Especially when considering that the sport and fans are only eight years removed from the lockout that caused the cancellation of the 2004-05 season.

“The last time, when the entire season got put on the shelf, you at least thought, ‘Well, all right, they’re nuking the season but they’re doing it with a purpose,’” said Capitals season ticket holder William Stilwell, who is known as “Loud Goat” for leading booming cheers at Verizon Center. “They’re going to lay the groundwork for a stable system that’s going to make sure that this doesn’t happen again. . . . You kind of expected that the reason they pulled the rug out from under us that time was that well if you hold tight, hold with us, it’s going to be better. And now, there goes the rug again.”

Stilwell, 37, was a season ticket holder during the 2004-05 lockout and admits that he doesn’t have the same vitriol toward the labor dispute this time around. Part of it is the realization that aside from canceling tickets, fans have few options to make their voices heard and that, for better or worse, he will return to hockey whenever the season starts up.

Love of the sport doesn’t change fans’ frustration with the bickering and rhetoric between the two sides, though, as they listen to owners ask for rollbacks on large contracts they promised and the players — whose average salary is $2.4 million — talk about what they lost in the last lockout.

“I have very little sympathy for the players. They’re making a minimum of six figures, most seven. I’m in debt,” said Matt Parker, 23, of Washington. “But at the same time, if owners agree to a contract, they better be ready to pay it. . . . Don’t get mad at the players because you have no self control about what you’re spending.”

On Sunday, the first day of the lockout, the owners and players opted to lobby for public support rather than return to the bargaining table. The NHL released a message on its Web site stating that it is “committed to negotiating around the clock to reach a new CBA that is fair to the Players and to the 30 NHL teams.” Several teams — Dallas, Edmonton, Florida, St. Louis, San Jose, Minnesota, Vancouver and Phoenix — sent out specific messages to their fans, as well.

A few hours later, the NHLPA released a video directed to fans that included players Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, David Backes, Gabriel Landeskog and James Reimer explaining the union’s position.

“It’s kind of a sad thing that you look at the history of our game and the history of our league and how so often it keeps coming back to the same thing,” Toews said in the video. “I think the goal here, especially from the players’ standpoint, is to find something that, like I said, is fair, reasonable and is something we can instill for years to come, where we’re not going to have these problems down the road.”

No formal, in-person negotiations are planned yet, and it’s unclear how long the labor dispute might last. In the meantime, players have already started signing elsewhere.

Among those who have already announced deals to play in the Eastern European Kontinental Hockey League are Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin, Ottawa’s Sergei Gonchar, Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk, Philadelphia’s Ruslan Fedotenko and Winnipeg’s Alexei Ponikarovsky.

Several prominent Czech players have already committed to play in the Czech Extraliga as well, including Jaromir Jagr, Tomas Plekanec, Pavel Kubina and Ondrej Pavelec.

Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said previously he will play in the KHL, but did not announce where and when he will sign.

Dynamo Moscow, the team Ovechkin played with for three seasons as a teenager, and CSKA Moscow, which currently has his former Washington teammate Sergei Fedorov as general manager, are believed to be the front-runners.

As players find work overseas, fans are devising ways to watch the European leagues to get their hockey fix during the lockout.

“At this point, the players are right. As they say, I cheer for them,” said Alison Tweedie-Perry, 42, of LeDroit Park. “I’m not out there saying, ‘Go Ted Leonsis.’ Ted’s great, but I’m not there cheering for him.”

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