With each passing day, the feeling of deja vu grows.
As mind-boggling as it is to consider, every day that the NHL and its locked-out players continue their stare-off puts us closer to another lost season.
That the circumstances are completely different this time around doesn't seem to matter at this stage and, of course, the longer this goes, the more closely linked the two work stoppages become.
Here's a look at some similarities and differences between the 2004-05 season-long lockout and the current work stoppage:
Differences: The two sides have actually spoken on a fairly regular basis since the start of the lockout, on Sept. 15. The fact deputy commissioner Bill Daly and his NHLPA counterpart Steve Fehr didn't speak for a few days last week was a marked departure from the relatively open lines of communication that have marked this negotiation. Now, sometimes the talks have been short, such as when the league walked out after examining a trio of player proposals for 10 minutes. Other meetings have been more substantial. In the previous lockout, there were long periods of icy silence, most notably from mid-September to early December 2004 that set the tone for the historic lost season. Most observers believe that constant contact, however minimal it might be, is imperative to a deal getting done in a timely fashion and saving at least some of the 2012-13 season.
Similarities: The frustration level on both sides of this battle is significant. The owners don't like Donald Fehr and his passive-aggressive style of negotiation. He's not a screamer, he doesn't storm out of meetings and he is, for the most part, extremely measured with the media. In short, he's driving the owners crazy. The players, of course, have it in for commissioner Gary Bettman, and the league has done a nice job of stepping on land mines every few weeks (See: walking out of meetings after 10 minutes, trying to discredit Fehr through the media and authorizing managers to talk to players without informing the union), which has served to reinforce the players' will in standing united in the face of another lost season. Last lockout, the palpable disdain between then-NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow and Bettman was a key impediment to saving the season. What began as a more cordial interplay has dissolved recently, and the constant shots being taken at Bettman -- funny how the players always seem to forget their own owners when these diatribes are unleashed -- has ramped up the antagonism between the two sides. But, hey, it's a labor negotiation, not circle time at kindergarten, so this is to be expected, right?
Differences: The core issues, of course, are markedly different, as the league was trying to enforce a salary cap last time and also got a 24 percent rollback on salaries. This time the league is coming off five straight years of record revenue growth, so talks are about redefining the sharing of the revenue pie. The players and owners still can't get straight how the league will honor all or most of all the existing contracts, while sorting through the contractual restrictions the league wants. In short, these are important issues, but ones most observers believe are eminently solvable, especially given that both sides seem to accept that revenues will get to a 50-50 split at some point in a new deal and revenue sharing must be enhanced to ensure league stability from top to bottom.
Differences: One big difference that enhances the players' desire to stand firm on having existing contracts honored (funny how the NHL appears to be the only pro sports league where honoring deals made by owners is a subject for negotiation) is the number of players under contract now compared to eight years ago. According to the NHLPA, 592 players were under contract at the start of the 2004 lockout. This fall, 658 players were under contract. If the owners are waiting for the players to crack as they did last time, the fact that so many are fighting for money they're already owed is a significantly different dynamic.
Differences: The structure of the NHLPA is much different this time with Fehr introducing a more horizontal style of organization. There is a 30-player executive board made up of the 30 team player reps and a negotiating committee of 31 players. Eight years ago, the NHLPA had a player president, Trevor Linden, and a smaller executive committee that took in all of the meetings. Now dozens of players have taken in at least some of the bargaining sessions. Recently, players such as Johan Hedberg, Ron Hainsey, Kevin Westgarth and Martin Biron have been regulars, although players not on the negotiating committee have also taken in some meetings (such as Brad Richards last week and Sidney Crosby before that). Does it matter? Certainly players publicly insist they feel there has been complete transparency in what has been discussed during negotiations and the information they're getting. But the question remains: If players are afraid to ask questions or raise issues on conference calls or with Fehr himself, how do their concerns get voiced? There is little doubt Fehr is in absolute control of the information dispersed to the players in a way that is markedly different than eight years ago.
Similarities: Throughout the 2004-05 lockout, there was much discussion about the damage being done to the game. As it turns out, the damage was minuscule and the NHL returned in 2005-06 with a new set of rules, new faces in Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, and fans returned in record numbers. This time around the debate continues to rage about how this stoppage will effect the league. There are again dire predictions, but the problem for the league and its players is that there appears at this stage to be no new face to put on the game to try to erase the shame of another lockout. Fans see the labor dispute as a clash of egos over money as opposed to a systemic fight about redefining the game. Fans will come back in Canada because that's what they do. But what happens in St. Louis, Florida, Los Angeles and Phoenix (yes, a whole different issue there with ownership) -- all markets that had strong seasons a year ago but where they must fight to carve out a niche in their sporting communities? No one knows how much damage has been done and what the recovery time will be this time, but the prevailing feeling, even among top executives, is that fans will stay away in more places and for longer periods.
Differences: The public relations fight is markedly different this time. Thanks to the explosion of social media, fans are able to voice their opinions more often and more candidly than eight years ago. The owners and Gary Bettman have, for the most part, taken a beating via Facebook and Twitter from players, agents and fans (although, as mentioned earlier, players have been very circumspect about calling out the men who actually pay their salaries). What will be interesting is how sponsors respond to that. Do they shy away from returning or extending existing contracts based on the anger and resentment that seems to be much more prevalent this time? Why wouldn't they? Eight years ago, fans in general, and especially in Canada, believed getting a salary cap and controlling costs was imperative for stabilizing the game in Canada and for small-market teams. It didn't exactly work out that way, but this time the perception at least is that fans are a lot angrier, and that anger is much more easily shared.
Similarities: At some point, time is going to run out on both sides. It ran out in early 2005 as the season was cancelled in mid-February, although there was a last-ditch effort to resurrect the campaign a week later. The prevailing thinking is that owners will not wait as long this time around to close down the season for good. And with the number of concessions owners at least perceive they have made, the digging in has already begun. Many observers believe that if a deal isn't done by late December or early January, owners will simply turn out the lights for good. The good news is that many of those same observers also believe a deal could be hammered out in a matter of days if the two sides got down to serious give and take in the near future. Go figure.
Similarities: At the end of this, when a new deal is finally cobbled together, the players will still get paid millions of dollars (the salary cap went from $39 million to just over $70 million since the last lockout thanks to five straight years of record revenues), and the owners will still be stinking rich. Players and agents will almost immediately begin to exploit holes or flaws in the new CBA, and the fans will be completely ignored in the process, as will those who rely on the sport for income, such as bar and restaurant owners, ushers, parking lot attendants and souvenir sales folks.
Similarities: Stupid. Careless. Arrogant. All the adjectives used to describe both sides and the failure to get a deal done without the embarrassment of a lockout.