Labor uncertainty hanging over NHL like summer storm clouds

By Brian Stubits | CBSSports.com
Fehr will be representing the players this time. (Getty Images)

When the L.A. Kings won the Stanley Cup on Monday, it brought an end to the hockey season, on the ice at least. Between the Awards Show, the draft and free agency, the NHL won't really slow down for another month or so.

Unfortunately this summer that is followed by the question of when will it pick back up again? That is the impending sense of doom surrounding the labor dispute that's coming this summer.

We knew it was coming but it was made official when the NHL informed the NHLPA a few weeks ago that it wants to terminate the current CBA and renegotiate.

Technically speaking, the current CBA will stay in operation until it expires on Sept. 15. If a deal isn't reached before then, it's believed that the owners will then lockout the players.

Seven years after the NHL missed an entire season because of labor issues, are we going to have that again?

The prevailing wisdom seems to be no. Talking to a lot of different people at the Stanley Cup Final games, many don't seem too concerned about lies ahead. The thinking is that things are starting to go so well, neither the owners nor the players are going to risk that. Then there are the Debbie Downers like me who are scared of what's to come and shudders at the mere utterance of Donald Fehr's name with 1994 as a frame of reference.

Sorry, but I don't get the warm and fuzzies that the beginning of the negotiations has been delayed time and time again. Once upon a time it was going to happen starting at the All-Star break, then it seemed to be pushed and pushed more to the point that they still haven't begun.

Making matters just a little worse for me is the fact that there are two very smart, calculating and strong negotiators who are going to lead these talks in Fehr and Gary Bettman. I see that more like rams locking horns and getting nowhere in their battle, but as a fan of the game I hope I'm wrong and these two are able to get to the common ground. One word that comes up a lot when talking about both men is "reasonable."

But you want a ray of sunshine? How about Bovada listing the odds -500 Yes, +300 No on the season starting on time, meaning they think no games are missed. So there's that.

There are going to be a lot of issues on the table. Of course chief among them will be how do they split the revenue? Right now the players have a rather significant portion of that pie, having taken 57 percent in the last deal. That is going to come down, honestly it has to. But the question is what will the NHLPA leverage out of lowering the revenue share?

Another issue that still does have to be sorted out is the next Olympic Games in 2014. Now let's first say that there is really no foreseeable way that the NHL won't be sending its players to Sochi, Russia for the Games. But don't mistake that for the owners not being happy about it. This will be an area where they use their power and back off and say OK.

It wasn't much of a concern for the NHL when the Olympics were in Salt Lake City or Vancouver. That doesn't require as much of a disruption to the season because of the short travel distance. Sochi, though? Different story. It's just not something the players are likely to budge on at all, which puts the owners in the power spot.

So many more things will be brought up including player safety issues, discipline problems, so on and so forth. If it has been discussed in recent seasons by fans and media, it's likely to have some kind of mention in the CBA meetings.

I hate to be the gloomy guy here in the afterglow of the Kings' first Cup and the excitement brewing for free agency, but this will obviously be the biggest story of the summer. The NFL and NBA each went through their own labor disputes, now it's hockey's turn.

The fact that hockey's offseason seems to be shorter than any of the other major sports in the States doesn't make me feel any better about things. They haven't even begun negotiations in earnest yet; I still think it's hard not to see some disruption to the season.

With that said, even I being a labor pessimist don't see a whole season being wiped out here. The NHL can't afford that and I think everybody knows it. The sport has finally been showing signs of a recovery over the last two seasons; lose another year and no telling how tough it will be to come back from that. My best bet would be for an NBA-like situation with a condensed and smaller regular season after a deal was struck at the deadline.

Sadly, this will be the summer blockbuster.

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @BrianStubitsNHL on Twitter and like us on Facebook.

 

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