A day after NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said “yes” in response to the question of whether we would have an NHL season this year, the league announced cancellation of games through January 14, 2013.
Considering the players and owners have not spoken face-to-face since a second failed mediation, it is not surprising that additional games were cancelled (games had been cancelled through December 30). What is significant about this cancellation is that it is almost certainly the last cancellation of a block of games. The next cancellation, which could come in early January, would result in the loss of the entire season.
In 2004-2005, the NHL became the first major sports to lose an entire season to a work stoppage. Now, just eight years later, the league teeters on losing another season.
I have always been confident that we would have at least a shortened NHL season. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has said on numerous occasions that a 48 game season is the shortest season that would be contemplated. To play a 48 game schedule, the puck would need to drop by roughly January 15th, which is why this last cancellation has set off the countdown to hockey doomsday.
All of the reasons I was confident that we would have a season this year still exist. First, it is in the best interest of both the players and owners to actually get a deal done and have a season. Second, the issues that still separate the sides (length of the CBA, contract length limits and back-diving contracts) are hardly the type of issues that would be considered “hills to die on.” Third, and maybe most importantly, it has been pretty clear that both side has intended to wait until the last possible minute until actually making a deal – both sides believing they will get a better deal the longer they wait.
Despite all of the above stated reasons for my long-standing optimism still being in play, I have to admit that my optimism is beginning to wane.
The reason for my waning optimism is that the decision of the NHL Players Association to initiate a “decertification” of the union has thrown an already complex and bitter conflict into the American courts.
The NHL has already pre-emptively filed a lawsuit seeking to have the lockout declared valid and further to have contracts to be ruled null and void if the union decertifies. The NHL has also filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board claiming the players’ decertification is essentially a sham.
Once decertification is official, which should be today, the players will file suit against the owners under anti-trust laws seeking to have the lockout ruled illegal and recovering triple damages from the league.
Essentially, both the owners and the players have launched a nuclear volley at the other side. The question is will they understand, with enough time to do something about it, that this volley guarantees mutually assured destruction of both sides.
It is highly unlikely that either side will get what they want through the courts and the process will take time – time neither side has. The most realistic legal outcome of both of these legal maneuverings is the status quo for both sides. In the meantime, while neither side is likely to have its position improved through the courts, time will have run out for a season.
The Mayans were right: doomsday is here for the NHL.