ROSEMONT, Ill. – The NHL made a major statement Friday in canceling the entire November schedule, pushing the number of regular-season games wiped out by the lockout to 326.
But players don’t quite see it that way. While most weren’t in the least bit surprised by the league’s decision, given stalled collective bargaining talks, they considered it something of an artificial cancellation.
“To be honest with you, I think more than anything it seems like it’s more of a scare tactic to us,” Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane said. “If there’s a deal reached tomorrow, I don’t think it really means too much.”
That was the refrain from locked-out players who gathered in Chicago for the “Champs for Charity” exhibition game at AllState Arena. Just as many brought up the NHLPA’s desire to keep playing under the old collective bargaining agreement rather than endure a lockout, the notion was that the league wasn’t moving talks forward by axing games.
“Those cancellations aren’t set in stone until the games have already passed,” Washington Capitals right wing Troy Brouwer said. “So for us we’re still considering that even though they have canceled the games all the way to the 30th, that’s not necessarily a mandatory cancellation.”
That’s where the league and players see things differently, or one of many ways during a lockout that is becoming increasingly contentious. The cancellation of games through Nov. 30 allows owners to fill up arenas on nights that otherwise would be dark.
Once arenas get booked for nights that were supposed to have hockey, things get more complicated. But hours after the cancellations became official, players weren’t ready to call it quits on November.
“Obviously it’s something that can be reversed,” Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. “They’re still going down that road that they’re going to keep exercising the power that they have to be able to lock us out and to try and use the fact that they cancel games to try and sway us their way. We’ll see what happens in the next little while if there’s some talks and if it really goes that far.”
In the eyes of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, this past week saw the deadline to complete a full, 82-game season come and go. And, in theory, Friday’s cancellation erased that fading hope.
“We had hoped to be able to forge a long-term collective bargaining agreement that would have preserved an 82-game regular season for our fans,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in a statement. “Unfortunately that did not occur.”
NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr said he didn’t know if an 82-game slate was still possible. “We’ve got a contract to negotiate first,” he said. “That’s the second question, not the first one.”
According to Fehr, Friday’s move followed a pattern set by the NBA a year ago that the NHL is following, apart from negotiations.
“It’s a shame,” he said. “And hopefully we’ll finally get down to serious negotiations one of these days. But we’re not there yet.”
It’s hard to say what will spark “serious negotiations” more than already missing out on over a quarter of the regular season and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of revenue. Especially after last week, when owners insisted players negotiate off their proposal and players submitted three of their own that were summarily rejected within a matter of minutes.
Something has to give.
“Somebody has to be willing to talk about things seriously,” Fehr said. “So far, the league’s position is essentially, we got billions of dollars from the players last time, and we’ve had nothing but record revenues ever since, so let’s try go and get another billion or two.”
Players, who were briefed by Fehr at a lunch Friday in Chicago, saw the cancellation of another bunch of games as the continuation of some strong-arm negotiating tactics.
“It’s no different than their proposal last week saying ‘Take our proposal or we’re going to cancel more games.’ We’ve been expecting it; we know what’s going to happen here,” Brouwer said. “They’re obviously going to test to see how willing we are to continue with the lockout and make sure that we get a fair proposal and a fair deal for both sides.”
Once that happens, if the 2012-13 season can be salvaged, it seems a long shot to assume each team will play 82 games. More likely would be a 66- or 72-game schedule.
“All I can tell you is that when a deal is reached, we hope both sides make the maximum effort to put back together the largest number of games that are physically possible to do, consistent with the logistics of that and player safety,” Fehr said.
But until a deal is reached, expect more cancellations. The Winter Classic could be next on the chopping block, given the money and manpower needed to put on that show Jan. 1 at Michigan Stadium.
Players, even those not on the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs, would be sad to see it go. But the owners’ willingness to cross games off the schedule so far means they won’t be surprised when it happens.
“They’ve done all this so far because they can,” Toews said. “It’s almost to the point where you kind of believe they’re excited to do this just because they’re the NHL, they’re the owners and we’re just kind of waiting to see what happens next.”