Thursday, 20 September 2012

Look out, lockout about - NHL season in doubt

As difficult as it is for a British sports fan to believe, the NHL season due to start in the new few weeks is in real danger of being cancelled.

Earlier this month the NHL management locked out the league's players after an industrial dispute ended in a stalemate with neither side yet prepared to compromise on their demands.

For their part, the NHL and club owners want to drastically reduce the share of the overall revenue which is given to the players, represented by the NHLPA.

Last season that chunk amounted to a mammoth $1.87billion, around 57 per cent of the total pot.

Their proposal for this season looked to set that figure at a far more moderate 43 per cent which, it would be fair to say, would not see the players go short anytime soon.

Also included in the unpopular bundle were plans to change rules on when players become free agents, upping the years of NHL service from seven to 10, or when a player reaches the age of 27.

Talks, which seemed fractious at the best of times, saw a slight movement on the central figure - with an offer of 49 per cent in the first year rising to 47 per cent of the last four years of the five year deal.

The players, marshalled by the NHLPA's chief executive Donald Fehr, wanted the initial player pool to be nearer the $1.9billion mark, increasing annually for two years at an agreed level before expert number crunches sat down and calculated the final two years on the basis of how well the league was shaping financially.

Also on the agenda is the issue of sharing cash between the NHL owners and helping to prop up struggling franchises which do not have the commercial clout of the likes of Toronto, Montreal, Boston or the Rangers.

This in turn has led to plenty of chatter over the sense of hammering away with sides in traditional non hockey cities in the hope they take off rather than concentrating them in currently unrepresented heartlands which would pull in a higher level of cash.

However, for many of the fans, these issues are not important. Much has been made of the millions vs billions nature of the negotiations and, if you believe the internet messageboards and forums, a prolonged lockout could force a crop of supporters into the hands (and stands) if junior hockey outfits.

Either way, the deadlock has left a bitter taste in the mouth of most, if not all, supporters who just want to watch their hockey heroes.

As a relatively recent convert to the world of hockey the current situation is certainly surprising. Following a Championship football (or soccer for any American readers) outfit in Brighton and Hove Albion, the idea that a row over cash could stop a season starting is completely alien.

Most people this side of the Pond agree footballers earn too much, some push their luck but, while we all like to moan about it, the season always starts on time.

I cannot imagine for a second the FA and Premier League getting together to lockout the likes of Wayne Rooney et al.

However, it seems problems like this are part and parcel of US sport at the highest level. It isn't even the first NHL lockout since the turn of the century.

Disputes like this are the flip-side of the coin which creates a far more level playing field, a wage cap arena in which all sides can, to a degree, compete with a relative chance of success.

Perhaps the odd late start to a season is the price US fans have to pay for a more socialist approach to their sports. Or, just maybe, it is about millions rowing with billionaires over the huge mountain of cash generated, lest we forget, by the TV subscriptions, season tickets and merchandise sales of the average Joe. The humble hockey fan.

Hopefully it will all be sorted out. And, as someone who has already booked a hockey trip to New York and Ottawa to see the Rangers in four games this December, I hope it gets sorted out quickly.

If not I am going to have to find something else to do during my visit. Hell, I may even take in a few Knicks games.

At least I will only be put out for one, albeit expensive week. The average US hockey fan faces having to fill a lot more evenings and afternoons if the NHLPA and the NHL can't come to some sort of agreement.

Fingers crossed.

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