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AHOCKEY GAME, someone once quipped, is a fight with a score at the end. Only this year, there have been no scores, just a cold, bloodless fight, and the only ice is in the air. With negotiations between the NHL and its players frozen, can this season be saved?
If it is, it'll have to be quick: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman says the deal must be reached by mid-January for the league to stage a minimum 58-game season, but the sides aren't even talking right now and tempers are flaring.
The NHL has been here before: The entire 2004-2005 season was canceled due to a labor dispute--the only one of the four major U.S. pro-sports leagues to lose a whole season for that reason. The agreement reached after that lost year ended last September. Negotiations over the summer on a new contract did little but pour fuel on the players' fire: The NHL's initial offer in July reduced the players' share of hockey-related revenue from 57 percent to 43 percent, angering the icemen.
Said NHL Players Association Executive Director Donald Fehr, the league exhibits a "constant underestimation of the players' resolve." Indeed, that "resolve," exhibited in many a hard-fought, 2-1, triple-overtime win, may skate players straight into another lost season.
The league's last offer involved a 50-50 split, but NHL negotiators considered the players' demands for a "make whole" provision, which would have protected their incomes regardless of league revenue unacceptable. Players say they're willing to come to the table again but the league, which has now canceled games through early January, including the Winter Classic and the All-Star Game, won't sit down. Now, players may vote to disband the NHLPA, turning it into a trade association. That would allow them to sue the owners under antitrust laws.
Meanwhile, hockey fans are left out in the cold. This is particularly tough on Washington Capitals followers, who have had good reason to "Rock the Red" recently. Capitals forward Brooks Laich told CSN Washington, "I hope [the league] knows something we don't because I think we're doing tremendous damage to the game." After several winning years and the acquisition of some premier players, last season the team pushed the defending champion Boston Bruins out of Stanley Cup contention in the playoffs in seven exciting one-point games.
Professional hockey is a $2.27 billion industry--when the teams are playing. Will fans come back when play resumes? Owners and players may be bruised, battered, and bloody, but hockey fans, as tenacious as the game itself, still want to see a win.