The Beginning of the Long, Slow March
Pay no attention. Ignore them.
That's about the best advice anyone can give a hockey fan these days as the NHL and NHL Players Association start the verbal sparring of yet another round of collective bargaining negotiations that almost certainly will result in another work stoppage.
For the "crime" of loving the game too passionately and supporting the 30 NHL clubs too enthusiastically in the wake of the last lockout, NHL fans and customers will now pay the price of watching the league and players demonstrate once more they care more about the business of the game than the sport or the fans.
They'll shut the game down, at least for a while, because the fans didn't punish them emphatically for shutting it down the last time. And it appears nothing will stop that from happening.
So ignore the propaganda, including Thursday's pronouncement by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman that if there's no deal by Sept. 15 - the day the old CBA expires - the NHL will lock out the players. That was expected, and really just a way of making sure the players understand that simply delaying negotiations and playing for time won't get them anywhere.
Don't forget the league made a laughable "offer" to the players last month that the players have as of yet opted not to even bother responding to. Given their druthers, the players would certainly just keep playing under the old system, and the rather illogical contracts given out to Ryan Suter, Zach Parise and Shea Weber this summer illustrated why they would feel that way.
At least NHL owners aren't bothering to cry poor this time. They know that everybody else knows their revenues have increased by more than 50 per cent since the last lockout wiped out the entire 2004-05 season. This time, Bettman and his board just want a more favourable deal because they want a more favourable deal, starting with the basic premise that they no longer want to give 57 per cent of all revenues to the players.
The players are doing incredibly well and want to keep doing incredibly well. If revenues have gone up, they undoubtedly figure they deserve more, not less.
So there's really no good guy or bad guy this time, not like there appeared to be the last time when the NHL somehow convinced fans in smaller markets that they were fighting the good fight to save those teams and make them more competitive.
Here are the dynamics that really matter. The NHL knows it can cancel months of play and the fans will just come back and pay higher ticket prices. It also knows that Bettman can keep the owners together, and keep them quiet.
The players, on the other hand, know they caved last time - actually, they turned on one another - which is why they went out and hired Don Fehr. This time, then, they know they have to prove they won't cave or betray each other, that they have unity and can stay unified, and to do that Fehr needs to keep them off the job for a while. The league will only believe the players will stick together if they stick together when they're not getting paid.
What this means, folks, is that we're probably two months away, or maybe three, from serious talks really beginning. The first 20 games of the season, barring something dramatic, are already gone. What gets "offered" today will have little or no bearing on what the final deal looks like.
Oh, there will be lots of rhetoric. Predictable stuff. Hopefully, people have learned by now that this isn't a popularity contest or an election, and whether public sentiment is with the owners or the players (it's always with the owners) it won't matter a whit as far as how long the league's doors will be shut.
So set your calendar for Nov. 1 and check back in then. If there's some shocking breakthrough before then, it'll surprise everyone.