This wasn't supposed to happen again.
In the aftermath of the grim lockout that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season, the NHL returned with a tremendous wave of hope and enthusiasm. There was a general feeling that the pain had been worth it. Hockey was back and the NHL had found an economic system that ensured it was here to stay.
On the July day when commissioner Gary Bettman put his signature on a new CBA — the one that expires Saturday at midnight — he spoke of a new "partnership" between the league and its players and forecasted that they were in a position to take the sport to "spectacular heights."
"We can do it for the good of the game, and most importantly for our fans," said Bettman, who saw the league mostly deliver on that promise for seven seasons.
And then this. Another lockout. Another example of a sport that can't break free from its cycle of labour strife.
One of the more striking things about the NHL's impending work stoppage, its fourth in the last two decades, is how little it has in common with the one that came directly before it.
In 2004, the animosity between Bettman and Bob Goodenow, the executive director of the NHL Players' Association, was evident. The sides were separated by a major philosophical divide — the salary cap — and each made it clear it was ready for a fight. The owners built up a $300-million war chest to help pay bills during a lost season and the players talked internally about possibly sitting out two years in an effort to stave off "cost certainty."
It was ugly.
"What happened eight years ago is something that none of us ever want to go through again," Bettman said recently.
The most painful toll was inflicted on the NHLPA. The players were driven into different factions as the missed paycheques piled up and they eventually folded with the acceptance of the salary cap and a 24 per cent salary rollback.
It's a situation that still causes Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson to shake his head today. As a vice-president with the NHLPA, he was one of the seven players who helped negotiate the 2005 deal and it ended up costing him about $14 million in lost salary, when factoring in the missed season and rollback.
But that's not what sticks out most in his memory now. Like virtually all of his colleagues at the time, he can't help but wonder about what might have been in the season that never was.
"I'm sure, looking back at it 20 years from now, you'll wish you could have played," said Alfredsson. "I don't think losing a whole year ever feels like it's worth it."
Amazingly, he's more than willing to do it again. Alfredsson is among roughly 200 players that endured the lockout and remain in the league now. At age 39, he knows another long work stoppage could spell the end of his NHL career but he emerged from this week's union meeting in New York more emboldened than ever to take part in the fight for players' rights.
He pointed out that he entered the NHL just after the 1994-95 lockout that shortened the season to 48 games and benefited from it.
"A lot of people have given up sacrifices for players coming after (them)," said Alfredsson.
The NHL's rocky labour history has been referenced repeatedly during a summer of negotiations, with Bettman noting the union delivered the first salvo with an 11-day strike in 1992 and NHLPA boss Donald Fehr often citing the massive concessions made by players in 2004-05 as a reason they're unwilling to make more now.
Even after seven successful seasons, it's clear the pain inflicted by the one missed before it still lingers.
The sides were so entrenched in their positions during the last round of negotiations that it took three months for them to return to the bargaining table after the lockout was enacted. In the meantime, players dispersed around the globe, with more than 300 of them seeking work in European leagues.
Others, like Bobby Holik, stayed home and took up new hobbies. His deal with the New York Rangers at the time averaged $9.5 million per season — an amount that would make him the NHL's second-highest earner today — and was too expensive to insure against injury.
As it turns out, the veteran didn't mind the time away from the rigours of professional hockey.
"I was busy with different things," said Holik, who retired in 2009. "It was actually nice. It was the first time almost in two decades where I had a break. I made the most of it, let's put it that way."
The first true sign of life in those talks emerged in December 2004, when the union tabled a proposal that included the 24 per cent rollback and other concessions, including a lower maximum salary for players on entry-level contracts. Both elements would end up in the final deal but more pain would have to be inflicted before it was struck.
Bettman cancelled the season on Feb. 16, calling it a "tragedy" for the players.
At that time, the commissioner defended the need for a salary cap by pointing to the Levitt Report, which concluded the league was losing more than $250 million annually while owners were paying out 75 per cent of revenue to players. It painted a dire financial picture.
Looking back, it's little wonder why the NHL felt so much enthusiasm after eventually signing a deal that required teams to spend between 54 per cent and 57 per cent over the life of the contract.
Alfredsson believes the players ultimately broke down and accepted the salary cap because they were unable to remain united — "there was a lot of different opinions," he said — and by June it was pretty clear the owners weren't going to budge. The desire to keep up the fight waned.
Former Washington Capitals goalie Olaf Kolzig succinctly summed it up to reporters earlier this summer by saying: "I think we were waiting to call their bluff and they didn't blink."
It remains a sore point.
"It's money that I'll never make back," said Kolzig, now the Caps associate goalie coach. "That was the peak of my career. A lot of other players, it was the end of their career. It was just an ugly situation that I don't think anybody wants to ever see happen again, no matter what sport it is."
Yet here we are.
Despite seeing the NHL's revenues grow to $3.28 billion annually, Bettman says the owners have discovered some problems over the course of this CBA. They still believe they are paying out too much in salaries and want to close loopholes to keep players from signing front-loaded, long-term deals.
The players, meanwhile, don't want to see a reduction on any current contracts. They've proposed bumping the salary cap by fixed amounts over the next three seasons and are pushing for more revenue sharing between teams.
With the lockout looming, both Bettman and Fehr expressed regret this week about their inability to find common ground in negotiations. However, a sense of resignation hovered over the process from the start, which helps explain why each side accused the other of not showing enough urgency.
Despite different issues on the table and different personalities around it, there's a familiarity to the situation. As Senators forward Jason Spezza noted this week, players will have an easier time organizing their own informal skates after having endured a 10-month lockout in 2004-05.
This is also a scenario Bettman knows well.
In recent weeks, he began showing more emotion in interviews as it started to become clear the third lockout on his watch was imminent. The only sports league in North America that has enjoyed peace during Bettman's 20 years as NHL commissioner is Major League Baseball, which previously endured repeated work stoppages and the cancellation of the 1994 World Series.
Harmony, it seems, is hard-earned.
"Every sport has its history," said Bettman. "Baseball, it's great that they've had (17) years of labour peace, but they also prior to that had eight work stoppages in a row and that's not something we'd like to emulate.
"I'd like to get this right and get this put to bed."
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5 Questions On The NHL Labour Dispute Answered
We here at CBCSports.ca want to guide you through the NHL's collective bargaining process and we want you to get involved. The following is a list of questions and answers to start things off. What do you want answered? Use the comment section below and we'll do our best to get you an accurate response. <em>This Jan.24, 2012 file photo shows Buffalo Sabres' Ryan Miller, right, making a save on a shootout shot by New Jersey Devils' Zach Parise (9) during overtime of an NHL hockey game in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)</em>
What does it mean to be locked out?
By definition, it means the players are being prevented from going to work, and that translates into no contact with their team. So no team-sanctioned practices, no contact with coaches to talk about team philosophy or line combinations. Probably more important is no contact with trainers about rehabilitating an injury or maintaining off-season workouts. Oh yes, one other thing. No player paycheques. <em>This Feb. 16, 2005 file photo shows a security guard passing stored Boston Bruins goal nets at the FleetCenter in Boston. With a lockout drawing ever closer, the NHL and the players' union are in touch with each other after a day of internal meetings. But no new negotiating sessions are scheduled for Friday, Sept. 14, 2012, one day before Commissioner Gary Bettman has said he will lock out the players. This would be the NHL's fourth work stoppage since 1992. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)</em>
What do players do in the event of a lockout?
While the answer varies case-by-case. Some players have already maintained they'll pack up and head overseas. For example, Penguins snipers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, have both expressed interest in playing in Europe, whether with the KHL or another professional league. It won’t be easy because of contract restrictions and/or limits on foreign players. These players will be able to collect paycheques but they will risk injury. Then again, there are some who may choose to spend more time with friends and family. They could take extended vacations, travel the globe, or better yet get comfortable on their couch and enjoy playing the simulated version of themselves in the newly released EA Sports franchise NHL 13. What would you do? <em>Jeff Skinner leaves the locker room after a Carolina Hurricanes informal workout at Raleigh Center Ice on Friday, Sept. 14, 2012, in Raleigh, N.C. Skinner was taking his gear, which is normally stored in the lockers, with him as the players will not be allowed to use the Hurricanes facility in the event of an NHL lockout. (AP Photo/The News & Observer, Ethan Hyman)</em>
Who are Donald Fehr and Gary Bettman?
Donald Fehr: The 62-year-old Kansas native has a deep history in labour relations, beginning as an assistant to the Major League Baseball Players’ Association in the late 1970’s. He was hired as the MLBPA’s general counsel in 1977, spending the next 33 years with the organization. The guy in charge was Marvin Miller, the most influential sports negotiator of all time. During this time Fehr also held the top job as union chief, guiding players through the 1994-95 strike. Despite presiding over the MLBPA during the only year in baseball history where the World Series was not handed out (1994), Fehr’s success can be measured in real dollars. The average player’s salary increased from $289,000 US in 1983 to more than $3.3 million in 2009. After leaving the MLBPA, Fehr joined the NHLPA in an advisor role in 2010, shortly before he was voted into the job of executive director of the organization.To get to know Gary Bettman better, click here for an indepth look at the elusive NHL commissioner as Q host Jian Ghomeshi asks author Jonathon Gatehouse about the man who has ran the NHL's business side for nearly two decades. <em>NHL commissioner Gary Bettman listens as he meets with reporters after a meeting with team owners, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012 in New York. The current collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players expires Saturday at midnight. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)</em>
What happens to hockey related jobs?
We've narrowed our definition of hockey related jobs to include anyone employed by the teams. A lockout could have an adverse effect on their staff, as is the case with the Vancouver Canucks organization. Earlier this week the team announced they'll be decreasing staffing to a four-day work week for employees in the event of a lockout, which is equal to a 20 per cent reduction. The scenario will differ for all of the clubs. "The front office people are ones that I worry about and many were casualties in the last lockout. I admire the organizations that were loyal to their employees and paid them in full through the lockout." — Hockey Night in Canada Radio's Gord Stellick during a CBCSports.ca live chat last month. <em>In this Sept. 16, 2004 file photo shows a hockey net lies atop seats under the stands at the Bell Centre, home to the NHL's Montreal Canadiens, on the first day of the NHL players' lockout in Montreal. With a lockout drawing ever closer, the NHL and the players' union are in touch with each other after a day of internal meetings. But no new negotiating sessions are scheduled for Friday, Sept. 14, 2012, one day before Commissioner Gary Bettman has said he will lock out the players. This would be the NHL's fourth work stoppage since 1992.(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Ian Barrett)</em>
What happens next?
t’s hard to stay optimistic when the two sides trying to figure out how to divide the pie can’t agree on whether it’s made of blueberries, apples or pumpkins, or even when they’ll meet to talk about the best ingredients. Gary Bettman says since the league made the last offer, they are waiting to hear from the players. Donald Fehr has called this statement a negotiating tactic. No matter who needs to reach out to who, no talks have been scheduled. Many, like HNIC’s Elliotte Friedman, believe it will take more than a somewhat meaningless Sept. 15 deadline to get talks heated up, pointing to the beginning of the season in October, and even the Winter Classic in January as the real pressure points on the two sides. <em>NHL hockey players watch as NHL Players Association executive director Donald Fehr speaks at a news conference in New York, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012. With a lockout looking increasingly certain, the NHL players' union meets Thursday followed by an owners' meeting at league headquarters with Commissioner Gary Bettman. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)</em>