Informal workouts and scrimmages in Arlington typically signify a change in the seasons, evidence that summer is turning to fall and that a new NHL campaign isn’t far away. But while the number of Washington Capitals on the ice grows with each passing day, there is little indication that they are preparing for anything other than a work stoppage.
Less than a week remains before the NHL’s current collective bargaining agreement expires, with the owners and players’ union still far apart on key economic issues. Unless the two sides can reach a resolution before 11:59 p.m. Saturday — they are scheduled to meet Wednesday morning for what could be a last-ditch attempt to bridge the gap before the deadline — the NHL will impose a lockout on its players for the third time in 18 years.
How long the stalemate could last is anyone’s guess. The start of training camp on Sept. 21 is in jeopardy, and portions of the regular season, which is scheduled to kick off on Oct. 11, may be as well. The NHL’s last lockout resulted in the cancellation of the entire 2004-05 season.
“If it’s going to be lockout, there’s going to be lockout. We ready for it,” Capitals star left wing Alex Ovechkin said. “If we was not ready [for a stoppage] we’d probably sign that kind of paper [proposal] that they gave us, but we [are] ready and we’re not going to give up.”
Around the league, players are making preparations to find competition elsewhere. The players won’t start missing NHL paychecks until mid-October, roughly the same time they’re scheduled to receive the return of last year’s escrow funds, which will be paid regardless of a stoppage.
Ovechkin, who returned to Moscow last week to celebrate his upcoming 27th birthday with family, confirmed that he will play for Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League in the event of a lockout. Goaltender Michal Neuvirth, a native of the Czech Republic, is entertaining the possibility of playing in Europe, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see other Capitals make the jump to play overseas as well.
“I think guys are less nervous now than we were because there’s an option for us,” said Mike Ribeiro, one of four Capitals who experienced the 2004-05 lockout as an NHL player. “If they want to lock out, guys will find somewhere else to play and we’ll keep playing. As players, we learned last time you can play other places and make a good living.”
Signing contracts in other leagues isn’t as easy as it may seem, though. Not all foreign leagues and teams will offer short-term deals or out-clauses for NHLers to return to North America once the labor dispute is resolved. Players also must get their own insurance, to avoid potential problems with their NHL team in case they suffer an injury while with another club. Not all teams will insure an NHL contract, leaving the player to cover the cost.
“It’s crazy. I don’t even know,” Neuvirth said when asked about the details of signing with another team. “I don’t even know how the offer’s going to look like. I talked to my agent, and obviously he’s trying to get me the best deal he can.”
Of the players on the Capitals’ projected 2012-13 roster, only goaltender Braden Holtby and defenseman Dmitry Orlov could be assigned to the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears during a stoppage because they are not subject to waivers.
While there are a number of issues that need to be resolved, the negotiations hinge fundamentally on how to divide the league’s $3.3 billion revenue. Under the current agreement, players receive 57 percent of hockey-related revenue. In the NHL’s most recent proposal, that number drops to 46 percent and the owners would redefine what constitutes hockey-related revenue. According to the NHL Players Association, that plan would amount to a 19.3 percent cut to the players’ share.
To end the 2004-05 lockout, players agreed to a salary cap and 24 percent salary rollback. They’re not willing to accept the immediate salary cuts the owners have proposed this time around.
“A lot of them think that pure and simply they were taken advantage of last time, and the owners want to take advantage of them again,” NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr told the Associated Press on Monday, adding that union members are ready for an indefinite stoppage. “Players have been saving for a couple years now.”
By all accounts, the players are better informed of the labor issues and more involved as a group this time around. The NHLPA has provided consistent updates via a smartphone app, in addition to more traditional routes of e-mail and the union’s player-access Web site.
Fehr also encouraged all players to participate in the negotiation process, not just those named to the committee — of the Capitals, Ovechkin, Jason Chimera and Wojtek Wolski have all attended bargaining sessions — and Fehr has traveled around the globe to hold informational meetings with constituents.
On Wednesday and Thursday, more than 250 players are expected to attend meetings in New York, where they will confer with Fehr about the status of negotiations. A few Capitals, including Karl Alzner, John Carlson and Wolski, are planning on being there. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman will give the Board of Governors an update on Thursday as well. Whether the meeting between the two sides or those gatherings will result in more than rallying cries remains to be seen, but it’s not lost on some what impact a prolonged labor standoff could have on most fans.
“It gets lost because it is lots of money. We make still good money, even if we get 20 percent pay cut. But any job if you get a 20 percent pay cut, you’re going to find a job elsewhere,” said Chimera, who went through the 2004-05 lockout. “It’s tough for a regular fan to get into it because people out there are really working hard for 15 bucks an hour or minimum wage. For us to be bickering over billions, it’s tough for fans to get on anybody’s side, I think.”