The date that has been ingrained — and elicited fear — in the minds of NHL players, management and fans for years, has finally arrived.
It's been circled and highlighted on the calendar as a day when hockey as we know it would change, when a sport that has struggled to maintain its status as the fourth major in the United States would disappear, fingers crossed that anyone will care when it finally comes back.
Sept. 15, 2004: Welcome to the end.
The collective bargaining agreement between players and owners — the same one that ended a 103-day stoppage in 1994 and has since been renewed twice — expires at 9 p.m., Arizona time, today, and a rubber stamp vote by the league's board of governors in New York will leave players locked out of training camps, the 2004-05 season in jeopardy and the very sport in peril.
Talks between the two sides, an exercise in futility for more than two years, broke off Thursday after the NHL flatly rejected a proposal by the NHL players' association that did not include what owners call “cost certainty'' and what players call a salary cap for teams expected to be between $30 million to $35 million.
“(The offer wasn't) anything other than a pre-orchestrated move to not make a meaningful proposal,’’ Bill Daly, the NHL’s chief legal officer, said in a statement. ‘‘They believe their best deal will be negotiated in a work stoppage situation and that’s unfortunate for our sport.’’
The offer came after the players rejected six different proposals from the owners, all with cost certainty at the core.
‘‘At some point, the owners have to realize the players will never accept a salary cap or a system linking payroll to league revenues,’’ NHLPA president and Vancouver center Trevor Linden said in a statement. ‘‘Unfortunately, the owners have expressed no willingness to engage in any dialogue that could lead to a fair agreement for both sides.’’
The owners say that presently, nearly 76 percent of all revenues are going to the players, that 19 of the 30 teams are losing money (a total of $273 million), that salaries have increased from an average of $733,000 in 1994-95 to $1.83 million last year while revenues haven't kept up, even though the average NHL ticket price has gone from $29.75 to $48.37 over the last decade.
The owners have built a “war chest'' of $300 million and many teams, including the Phoenix Coyotes, will do better financially during a lockout than during another season under the old CBA. The NHLPA has been squirreling away licensing fees for the past two years to pay stipends, medical benefits and insurance premiums.
There are no new talks scheduled, and no visible middle ground once the two sides are coaxed back to the table. Fade to black.
Optimists feel a deal can be reached by the first of the year, leaving another shortened season and a full playoffs. Others think the 2004-05 season will be lost, and both sides will get serious next fall, with talks of union-busting becoming more popular.
For the Phoenix Coyotes, it's the best and worst of times. A new, cost-certain CBA would pull the team out of red ink. The uncertain labor future this summer left free agents prepared to take substantial pay cuts and many of the teams that usually go shopping left on the sidelines. As a result, five free agents (Boyd Devereaux, Sean O'Donnell, Mike Ricci, Brett Hull and Petr Nedved) slipped on Coyotes sweaters during the offseason, transforming the roster from thin and hopeful to deep and confident. The Coyotes also re-signed all their own free agents, with some taking pay cuts in return for multiple-year contracts.
But now with his desk clear, Phoenix general manager Mike Barnett must feel like he's ready to drive his new sports car, only to discover the keys are locked inside.
“We've done everything possible under our control to be ready for a season,'' Barnett said. “The issue of the new collective bargaining agreement is in the capable hands of Mr. Daly and (NHL Commissioner Gary) Mr. Bettman, and we await what transpires.''
Some of the Coyotes players aren't waiting around. Ladislav Nagy will play in Slovakia, while Nedved will play in the Czech Republic. Oleg Saprykin and Andrei Nazarov will play in Russia, while Daniel Cleary (Sweden) and Krys Kolanos (Switzerland) are trying to finalize deals — all of which allow them to return to the NHL if and when play resumes this season.
Some Coyotes (Mike Comrie, Mike Johnson and Devereaux) may take part in the Original Stars League, a series of Canadian exhibition games featuring four teams playing four-on-four hockey, or a winter league slated for Quebec if the lockout continues. Others, like stars Shane Doan, Brett Hull and Derek Morris, will sit tight for now and see what happens next.
Hull, who has been an outspoken critic of the foot-dragging by both sides in the negotiations, is worried the game he's played all his life is in trouble. “If it takes getting an independent arbitrator to (solve the stalemate), I think it's got to be done,'' he said recently. “I don't see how anybody who cares about the game can let this fester because they know it's just going to ruin it. “Both sides have valid points. But if they're smart enough to realize that, they're smart enough to realize which ones are the most important and work with that.''