August 28, 2012 9:08 am

Can players, owners make progress this week?

We’re at the beginning of what figures to be a critical period for the NHL and its players, in terms of determining whether training camps will open on time. The current collective-bargaining agreement expires on Sept. 15, and if a new deal is not reached by then, the league has already indicated that it will lock out the players.

There have been talks between the sides, but not particularly deep or fruitful talks. A small-group session, including commissioner Gary Bettman and players’ association executive director Donald Fehr, is scheduled to meet in New York throughout this week in an attempt to make some progress. This doesn’t figure to be easy. Remember that Bettman has already calmly sat through the cancellation of one entire season, and remember that Fehr represented Major League Baseball players when they went on strike in 1994, a move that led to the cancellation of the World Series. These aren’t men who will be scared or intimidated into making a move.

The issues are relatively clear. At the end of the 2004-05 lockout, the league put in place a salary cap, and tied the rise and fall of that cap (and floor) to revenues. If the league, in general, did well, the players would do well, by virtue of the cap ceiling rising (and their salaries correspondingly rising). Now, the league is asking that the players’ share of that revenue split be reduced, from 57 percent to something in the range of 43-46 percent (depending on which report you read). It’s a pretty staggering change. Seven years ago, the owners railroaded the players, absolutely crushed them, and got everything they wanted. Now, seven years later, they’re coming back to the table and saying, “It’s not enough.” Frankly, I’m having trouble rousing empathy for the owners. They got the exact system they wanted, with the economic certainty they demanded, and now they’re essentially coming back to the players and saying, “Yes, we got cost certainty, but we didn’t go far enough.” Whose fault is that? Seven years ago, the owners did make compelling arguments. They opened their books, showed how much money they were losing, and made convincing arguments that the current system was not sustainable. They were correct. This time around, I haven’t heard anything compelling. It’s not terribly far from me complaining to Amazon.com that they’re charging too much money to my credit card, even though I’m the one who made the purchases. Whose fault is it that the New Jersey Devils gave stupid money to Ilya Kovalchuk? There’s only one logical answer…

Owners argue that the 57-43 revenue split is far off, in terms of the splits that other pro leagues (NBA, NFL) have established. They’re correct, but on the other hand, not every league’s economics are the same. There are also debates about revenue sharing, contract length and free agency, but until the two sides start making progress on getting those revenue-share numbers closer, the threat of a lockout will continue to loom large. For a nice rundown of the situation and a preview of this week’s talks, check out Kevin Allen’s piece in USA Today by clicking here. Beyond that, we’ll hope for the best…

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