NHL must tread carefully this offseason
MINNEAPOLIS – A cynic would say that this is becoming normal. An optimist would say that it will be resolved.
The cynic is right. The optimist is relying on a far too limited scope of memory.
As the NHL offseason begins, it's hard to ignore the league's expiring collective bargaining agreement, which will come to an end on Sept. 15. Trouble already seems to be looming, and really, should we expect anything else? It's hard to, especially after both the NFL and NBA went into lockouts in 2011.
The difference, though, is that football and basketball salvaged all or part of their seasons despite their respective work stoppages. They set a new precedent, that these things can be worked out – sometimes at the 11th hour, but solved regardless.
Hockey hasn't yet set that precedent. The sport is only eight years removed from the start of its most recent lockout, and uncertainty is brewing again. When the NFL entered its most recent lockout, it hadn't done so since 1987. The NBA had gone 13 years, and even in its last stoppage, it still salvaged a season.
The NHL has none of that to fall back on. Its 310-day lockout in 2004-05 lost the league a season and, more importantly, a portion of its fan base. Since then, it's been a battle to recover, and just when hockey seems to be gaining ground and prominence, the process threatens to begin again.
More than anything, it was the fate of the sport that was at the forefront of players' minds on Wednesday at the Defending the Blue Line game in Minneapolis.
"The league's been going good now, and… just the way the playoffs went and everything like that, we want to keep the momentum going with hockey and its popularity," Wild defenseman Nate Prosser said. "It would hurt if that happened."
Devils left wing Zach Parise agreed that he's seen the sport pick up momentum since the last lockout, and Wild left wing Stephane Veilleux said that he sees a lockout as dropping back, hurting the league's effort to gain fans.
"You just hope for the good of the game that it all gets worked out," Parise said. "I think that hockey has picked up a lot of momentum since the last lockout, and I really don't think it would be in anyone's – the league's, the players' – anyone's best interest to have a stoppage. But at the same time, there's a lot of details that go into it from the players' side and from the owners' side that a lot of people don't understand."
For now, it's still early, and neither Parise, Prosser nor Veilleux thinks that it's something the players should start worrying about – yet. On Tuesday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said that the league is working to determine a date to begin CBA negotiations with the NHL Players' Association in the not-too-distant future. With the discussions still to come, Veilleux said that he thinks all sides are entering into the negotiations from a positive standpoint.
Veilleux said that the most important thing is that owners, GMs and players all look forward to resolution instead of entering the process assuming that there won't be hockey next season. He has a sense that both sides are optimistic for now, and he hopes that the season will start on time.
That's the stance that Wild GM Chuck Fletcher took last Thursday, when he refused to comment on the impending negotiations.
"We're just focused on business as usual," Fletcher said. We're excited about the draft. We have prospect camp. We'll see what happens July 1. We're talking to teams about different scenarios. My responsibility is to get a hockey team ready to play in September and we'll just go from there."
Right now, it's a blind wish. No discussions have begun. No tone has been set. But Prosser does hope that the league learned its lesson from last time and that the sheer proximity of the last lockout to 2012 has left some residual memories and worries.
"Because that's happened so recent, maybe they'll think that it shouldn't happen again so quickly, and that's what I'm kind of hoping for," Prosser said. "I guess we're just kind of hoping and praying that everything gets worked out with league."
And despite the NHL's last experience with a lockout, Parise suggested that the league could follow the example of the other leagues' most recent negotiations, not its own. Yes, the NFL and NBA went through stoppages, but neither missed a season. Losing a season, even games, is the crux of the matter. So forget about lockouts and think about the bigger picture, about games and championships and seasons.
"No one wants to miss a full season," Parise said. "Players, owners, fans, no one wants to see that happen. And hopefully that won't happen. Hopefully it will work out. If you look at other leagues, the NFL was able to get something done. The NBA was able to get something done, too, so hopefully we'll follow suit."
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