NHL lockout poised to start; its end remains uncertain


Donald Fehr, center, executive director of the NHL Players' Association, stands with some of his membership, including Capitals star Alex Ovechkin, far right, during labor negotiations last month in Toronto. (Chris Young/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
September 16, 2012

For weeks, Adam Oates watched film and studied the nuances of each Washington Capitals player. Under normal circumstances, he’d be on the ice this weekend diagramming practice drills for the organization’s rookies and kicking off training camp as a first-time NHL coach.

But Oates, like everyone else in the hockey world, is now stuck in an indefinite holding pattern. The NHL imposed a lockout at midnight Saturday following the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement. It is the league’s second work stoppage in eight years, the third in the past 18.

During the lockout, Oates and other team employees are forbidden from communicating with the players.

“I mean, I’m frustrated, because obviously I want to start coaching,” Oates said Friday. “But as I said the other day, it’s a part of life. The union issue is the same issue with everybody. So when it happens I’ll get my chance.”

Oates retired before the 2004-05 lockout but experienced the one in 1994-95, when the NHL didn’t begin its season until mid-January. He isn’t on either side of this labor dispute and knows that there isn’t much use trying to predict how or when a resolution might occur.

“It’s business. It’s a job and this is the ugly part of it,” Oates said. “I can’t say I’m nervous about it. But you never know what might happen.”

The start dates of rookie camps have already passed. While it hasn’t been formally announced, the cancellation of Washington’s rookie game against the Philadelphia Flyers’ prospects on Sept. 20 is all but assured.

Teams across the league will begin to announce the cancellation of training camps — the Capitals’ veterans were slated to report on Sept. 21 — and according to multiple reports, the NHL will begin wiping out exhibition games this week. Regular season games, just four weeks away, will be the next to fall and at this stage there’s little reason to believe the scheduled Oct. 11 opening date isn’t in jeopardy.

Players will soon scatter across the globe. While some Capitals may wait to sign in other leagues, captain Alex Ovechkin has said he will play in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League during the lockout and goalie Michal Neuvirth, who said he was considering several offers, tweeted, “It looks like Europe for now!!!” on Friday. Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson may soon follow.

Players like Mike Ribeiro and Jason Chimera, who both have families and children in Washington-area schools, said they plan to remain and work out while paying for ice time out of their own pockets. Matt Hendricks and Brooks Laich intend to stay in Washington for now, but a lengthy lockout might prompt them to seek a contract elsewhere.

Some players will return to their home towns to join larger groups of 20 to 30 players working out. Others, like Troy Brouwer, whose wife Carmen is due to give birth to their first child in October, aren’t planning on moving to Washington before knowing when the season will start.

“If there’s a season, we will be in Washington right away but if there isn’t, I think we’re going to stick around in Chicago — at least until we hear otherwise,” Brouwer said.

It’s tough to tell how many games could be lost. No new formal negotiations between the NHL and NHLPA have been planned since the two sides last met Wednesday, when each group dismissed the most recent respective offers.

“In the end, I think both partners will be happy, I just don’t know how much time it’s going to take,” Backstrom said. “Maybe a month? Two months? More?”

The central issue in this standoff is how to divide the league’s revenues. Under the collective bargaining agreement that expired at 11:59 p.m. Saturday, players received 57 percent of hockey-related revenues. The NHL’s latest proposal would decrease that number to 47 percent by the end of a six-year term, amounting to a 17.5 percent pay cut for players.

Meanwhile, the NHLPA bristles at any suggestion of sweeping cuts after agreeing to a 24 percent rollback along with a salary cap to end the 2004-05 lockout. The owners’ persistent request for players to accept immediate paycuts this time has served only to promote solidarity.

“Last time we thought we got the raw end of the deal and we have to fight this time,” said Laich, the Capitals’ NHLPA player representative. “At some point you have to dig your heels in and fight. 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.”

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