The atmosphere at the Washington Capitals’ practice facility in Arlington on Friday was undeniably peculiar. Players who normally would be just a week away from opening training camp packed their equipment bags, taped their extra sticks together and loaded hockey gear into their cars.
Barring an unlikely last-minute deal on a new collective bargaining agreement, they will all be locked out by the NHL after the previous CBA expires at 11:59 p.m. Saturday. Once a lockout commences, they won’t be able to use any of the team’s private facilities or talk to team employees.
Some players will return to their offseason homes, some will sign contracts to play elsewhere and a few will remain in Washington, paying out of their own pockets for ice time so they can keep skating and stay in shape. There has been little optimism in the days leading up to the league’s deadline that this labor dispute will be resolved quickly, and players continue to stress their collective preparedness for a lengthy stalemate.
“I don’t think it’s our problem right now. I think it’s more [the owners] to be honest with you,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “We just want to make the system right and make it fair. We’re not dumb. Obviously we want a great deal for both partners. We’ll see how the negotiations go and just wait for a fair deal.”
While players make lockout plans, their employers are doing the same. On Thursday night, Capitals season ticket holders received a letter from owner Ted Leonsis explaining that accounts will not be charged for any games that aren’t played, monthly payment plans will be suspended, and that any funds already in an account will receive a 1 percent APR interest rate.
“I want to assure you that the NHL’s priority is to reach an agreement with the players,” Leonsis wrote. “We all want to talk about exciting games, upcoming opponents and great plays, not the nuances of labor negotiation. We get it — and I empathize with you.”
At this stage in the talks, the owners and players have each presented three proposals, the most recent of which came on Wednesday. But a wide gulf remains between the two sides on fundamental economic issues — chiefly the players’ share of revenues.
The players currently receive 57 percent of hockey-related revenues. In their latest offer, that number would lower to 54.3 percent at the start and then 52.7 at the end of a five-year agreement. In the fourth and fifth years, players would also receive 54 percent of any so-called new revenues, beyond what was created in the previous year.
Under the owners’ latest proposal, which keeps a uniform definition of hockey-related revenue, the players’ share would drop to 49 percent in the first year, 48 percent the second and then to 47 in the final four seasons of their six-year plan.
Each of the NHL’s offers begins with an insistence upon the players taking an immediate paycut, which is a non-starter for the union. The players are adamant that they don’t see a portion of their existing salaries sliced off the top after they agreed to a salary cap and 24 percent rollback at the end of the 2004-05 lockout.
“Any conversation starting with a rollback of player salary is the end of the conversation,” said Brooks Laich, who is the Capitals’ NHLPA player representative. “When they start with that, that’s the end of the conversation. That’s why we are where we are.”
Players have been quick to point out what they call hypocrisy coming from the owners as they advocate for paycuts, limiting contract lengths to five years and otherwise restricting player contracts. According to Capgeek, an independent Web site that specializes in crunching NHL salary numbers, in the race to sign players before the CBA expires, teams have spent more than $339 million signing players to new contracts and extensions.
“It’s kind of tough to judge where they’re at. I don’t know if they want a CBA so they can trust each other to regulate each other,” Jason Chimera said. “Our proposal did actually help the little guys out and spread money, but I think the bigger owners . . . probably don’t want to give back money to teams that are struggling, either. They want us to have a rollback to foot the bill for that. It’s a tough situation.”
For Laich, the request for rollbacks is insulting not only from a financial aspect, but also from the standpoint that two sides agreed to contracts in good faith, whether two days or two years before the current agreement expires.
“Where I come from, you honor your handshakes and you have your word. If you don’t have that, you have nothing,” Laich said. “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 think that hockey players are pretty honest people and they don’t like it when it’s coming back the other way.”
Capitals note: The team has assigned 21 players to Hershey of the American Hockey League so they can play there in the event of an NHL lockout. Goaltender Braden Holtby and defenseman Dmitry Orlov, who are both expected to rejoin the Capitals once the dispute is settled, were among those sent down.