When NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman formally cancelled the 2004-2005 season yesterday, the league became the first major professional sport in North America to lose an entire season over labor problems, driving speculation about where the 88-year-old NHL goes from here and whether it can survive.
The flurry of meetings and phone calls over the last few weeks between the union and NHL owners failed to stop the downward spiral that began with the owners' lockout of players five months ago, which had wiped out 830 of the 1,230 regular season games. Now the game heads into uncharted territory.
With the cancellation of the NHL season, hockey fans will not be filling MCI Center anytime soon.
(Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
"I know of nothing analogous to this . . . one of the big, professional major sports losing an entire season," said Stan Kasten, former president of the Atlanta Thrashers. "One thing I know is that there will be grave consequences that are long-lasting. It's inevitable."
The league shut down Sept. 15, when the NHL's 30 owners, tired of what they said were intolerable financial losses, locked the doors to arenas and practice facilities until the players agreed to a cost structure that would rein in salaries. Now that it appears those doors won't reopen any sooner than the fall, the question becomes, "What's next?"
"There are all kinds of scenarios people are talking about, but they involve such drastic steps that it's hard to predict whether they will actually take them," said Gary Roberts, a former anti-trust attorney for the NFL who teaches law at Tulane University.
Many predict that the league will make the next move by declaring an impasse and resuming play next year with replacement players who will skate under a salary cap system that lowers total player payrolls from 76 percent of league revenues to something closer to 50 percent.
If that course is taken, then this season's lockout likely would turn into next season's strike while the NHL tries to reopen with replacement players.
"We will continue to explore and pursue all available options in order to achieve a successful resolution," Bettman said. "Virtually immediately, we as an organization at the league level and our clubs are going to begin planning for a 2005-2006 season. We have not made any plans in terms of what that will look like, because all of our efforts for the last five months have been devoted toward making a deal so that we could have a 2004-2005 season. We will obviously pursue a collective bargaining agreement with the players' association. That remains our goal. But obviously . . . we will explore all of our options, and we haven't done that to date."
The union could go to court or the U.S. National Labor Relations Board to challenge the impasse, although the NLRB would have no say over the NHL's five Canadian teams. If the challenge is successful, the union could prevent the league from resuming play, possibly forcing Bettman back to the bargaining table and dragging the dispute deep into next season.
Another possibility is that the union dissolves, a process known as "decertification," and players then bring an anti-trust action against the owners for collusion. The NFL Players' Association successfully decertified against the NFL back in 1989, forcing the league back to the bargaining table for a deal that the union deemed favorable.
And a further scenario has the players or a media mogul such as Rupert Murdoch starting a new hockey league to replace the NHL. By next summer, 80 percent of the players' individual contracts binding them to their teams -- and to the labor negotiations -- will have expired, allowing those players to join another hockey league or form their own. Murdoch successfully created a rugby league in Australia last year as a way to create content for his global media empire, which includes satellite television, Fox Sports, 20th Century Fox movie studios and more.
"That's the area where the uncharted water goes in both directions," said J.P. Barry, the Calgary-based managing director of IMG hockey, with 70 NHL players under contract, including Daniel Alfredsson, Jaromir Jagr and Mats Sundin. "Let's say Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates all of a sudden start a league and promise players contracts and conditions better than the uncertainty that they have now. These are just possibilities, but you never know."
Certainly nothing that happened over the past several days suggests any solution will be easily attained. Both sides had made major concessions in face-to-face meetings starting in Washington on Sunday, moving to a Sheraton hotel at Niagara Falls, N.Y., on Monday and concluding with a series of faxed letters between their respective headquarters in New York and Toronto on Tuesday night.
After opposing any salary control system for months, the players on Sunday signaled that they might accept a cap, which they set at $52 million per team in a face-to-face meeting with a league-initiated meeting in Niagara Falls. Bettman countered with a $42.5 million cap offer Tuesday night, and the union responded a few hours later with $49 million. The owners in turn dropped their insistence that overall player salaries and benefits not exceed a certain percentage of league-wide revenue.