The pain officially began Thursday, just after 2 p.m., when the NHL made another lockout official with the cancellation of all regular-season games through Oct. 24. For Bruins fans, that took this Thursday’s season opener in Philadelphia off the docket, as well as the first game on Causeway Street, Oct. 18 vs. the Canadiens.
In total, six of Boston’s 82 games were vaporized in the steam of the NHL-NHLPA brewing acrimony. At the moment, 82 of 1,230 games have been wiped out.
So, where is this going? By the looks of it, right where it went in Lockout 2, which saw the entire 2004-05 season heaved into the dustbin and also left the players who held deals beyond that season with a 24 percent forfeiture on those earnings.
“It’s a miscalculation by the owners if they think we’re going to fold quickly,’’ said longtime agent Neil Abbott, who remains especially peeved over the 24 percent giveback that came along with players finally accepting a salary cap in the summer of ’05. “I just don’t see it. If the players feel they’re getting the back of your hand — and that’s the case again here — then they’ll fight you. Disrespect is what puts steel in their spine. And what the owners are telling them here is, ‘Just because we got you seven years ago, we’re going to get you again.’
“If they hold that position, there will be no hockey.’’
Meanwhile, the owners and the execs who mind the stores of their 30 teams are saying next to nothing for the record. That’s the way commissioner Gary Bettman conducts business. Over the course of his 20 years in office, including three lockouts and one player strike, he has perfected the art of closing ranks and buttoning mouths among his billionaire employers, one of whom is Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs. Only he speaks for them, along with top lieutenant Bill Daly. Classic, effective, iron-fisted negotiations when it comes to collective bargaining — and it will be nearly impossible for player boss Donald Fehr to keep his side as focused or as tightlipped. His players are far more informed than they were under Bob Goodenow 7-8 years ago, but they are still individual contractors, many with families, all with bills to pay, and all with expiration dates on their careers.
Bettman’s cone of silence has been employed this time around in order to keep more of the league’s $3.3 billion in revenue in his owners’ pockets. Every “point” that doesn’t go to the players’ gross payroll is worth $33 million, or roughly $1.1 million per team. With player salaries previously culling 57 percent out of hockey-related revenue (HRR) since the end of the last lockout, a rollback to 50 percent (similar to new deals in the NFL and NBA) would bring $231 million back to the owners. On average, based on a player workforce of 750, that’s a $308,000 savings per player. Once was the time that kind of money was a decent annual working wage in the NHL.
Truth is, the owners’ initial “ask’’ had the players surrendering far more, their percentage scaled back to the 43-46 percent range in the offer the owners tabled in July. But 50 percent is the obvious number here for both sides to bite, though that alone would not close the deal. Why? Because the owners also want dramatic changes elsewhere in the CBA language, including such things as limits on contract length, tightened restrictions on free agency, extending from three to five years the length of entry-level deals.
A hot-button issue within all that is the so-called “second contract’’ — with young Bruins forward Tyler Seguin a prime example. With his entry-level deal set to expire at the end of this season (if played), Seguin last month was signed to an extension by general manager Peter Chiarelli that will pay the former No. 2 overall pick an average $5.75 million for six more seasons. Seguin is a budding superstar, so it made great sense for the Bruins to lock him up long term. However, the 20-year-old has played only 155 regular-season games, and at the moment stands to be Boston’s highest-paid forward after only three years in the league. Pricey. Which is precisely why owners want to spread the entry-level system to five years. Much like the NFL, of course, many NHLers never make it beyond five years.
The owners, who pay the working help in 12 installments a season (October-April), are hoping that Thursday’s action is the first step in making the players feel the pain, then acquiesce to their demands. A player who makes, say, $5 million a year, the going rate for a top-six forward, in a few days will not see that first check — a gross payment of $425,000. Check No. 2, due about two weeks later, would be for another $425,000. By Thanksgiving, he will have lost $1.275 million. Appetite: killed.
In the owners’ CBA playbook, it highlights “lost wages’’ as the single greatest motivator to get players back to the table and eventually sign on the dotted line.
In ’05, that included accepting capped wages and also, to the amazement of many, taking that additional 24 percent haircut.
All of it perhaps the greatest beatdown in pro sports collective bargaining history. Little wonder that the owners aren’t blinking now. They like these payoff games even more than playoff games.
For his part, Abbott feels only an abrupt, significant easing of ownership demands could accelerate a deal. The players and agents are equally entrenched, he believes, and says many are outraged over the concept of maybe again having to forfeit dollars on deals that were signed prior to the Sept. 15 expiration of the last CBA. The owners have not requested a defined rollback, per se, but could achieve it through a reduction in how HRR is defined and/or implementation of an onerous escrow. That may sound like semantics to some, but players and agents fear the potential to lose huge money.
“At some point, you have to wonder about ownership’s good-faith bargaining,’’ said Abbott. “Some of these owners are the guys who went out over the summer and signed players to huge deals —
For now, no deal, and no sign of one any time soon. Nuclear winter, redux. Hockey Fright in Canada and the US. The owners won cost certainty, in the form of the cap, with the cudgel of the last lockout. Now they’re angling for profit certainty, using the same model, clawing back a larger piece of the gross take and telling the players to make due with hundreds of millions of dollars less — hand in hand with huge concessions in contract language. Little wonder it’s at a standstill. And it will be no surprise if the season is lost, though that decision likely would not come until approximately mid-January. Best to figure we’re in a 100-day countdown at this hour.
“Hey, dudes, this is the deal you gave us, the one you said you had to have in 2005 to make it all work,” said Abbott, offering his message to the owners. “And now you are saying, ‘We blew it.’ Come, on, really? It’s hard to believe a word they say.’’
A GOOD START
Chiarelli sees quality depth
The Bruins opened their WannaBs camp at Providence (AHL) 10 days ago, and two exhibition games (Springfield, Bridgeport) had Chiarelli particularly impressed by the depth at defense among a bunch of young prospects — the likes of Matt Bartkowski, Torey Krug, David Warsofsky, Zach Trotman, Tommy Cross, and Kevan Miller.
“It’s only two games, but I have to say they stood out more than expected,’’ said Chiarelli. “All good young kids. We’ve got some spots open on the [Boston] roster, and it’s too early to tell what they could offer, but at the same time, that’s our job, to be able to tell early. Some of those guys would have a shot at a spot or two. It looks like we’ve got good depth there.’’
Providence, with Jordan Caron aboard from the varsity roster, opens its AHL regular season Friday night at the Dunk vs. the Manchester Monarchs.
According to Chiarelli, goalie coach Bob Essensa will spend most of this month working with Boston’s three prospects on the Providence roster: Mike Hutchinson, Adam Morrison, and Nicklas Svedberg. Next month, if the NHL is still in lockout, Essensa will branch out in a player development role and visit top young prospects Malcolm Subban (Belleville, Ontario) and Zane Gothberg (University of North Dakota). Chiarelli will be in Ontario early this week, and will watch both Subban and top defensive prospect Doug Hamilton (Niagara) in OHL action.
Mara begins comeback trail
Ex-Bruins defenseman Paul Mara, out of work all last season, opted recently to sign with the Ontario (Calif.) Reign as the place to begin his NHL comeback at age 33. The Belmont Hill alum last suited up for Anaheim and Montreal in 2010-11, couldn’t find work last season, and now figures the ECHL is the place to kickstart his hockey renaissance. “He’s in great shape, running triathlons . . . feeling good and wants to prove he can still play,’’ said his agent, Matt Keator. “He wasn’t injured, per se, but he’d been banged up after playing so many years [and 734 regular-season games] in the league.’’ His coach in Ontario: Jason “Smurf” Christie, once a WHL standout (Saskatoon) who kicked around the minors for 10 seasons before launching a coaching career that began with a five-year run in Peoria. This is his second season in Ontario.
Nine busy Bruins
Zdeno Chara (Prague, Czech) and Patrice Bergeron (Lugano, Swiss) last week brought to nine the number of Bruins varsity to head overseas for the duration of the lockout. Chara was expected on the ice this weekend for Lev Praha, while Bergeron likely won’t play for his Swiss club until next weekend. Other Bruins who’ve gone over for the duration include: Tyler Seguin (Biel, Swiss), David Krejci (Pardubice, Czech) and Rich Peverley (JyP Jyvaskyla, Finland) among the forwards, Dennis Seidenberg (Mannheim, Germany) and Andrew Ference (Pardubice, Czech) on defense, and both goalies, Tuukka Rask (Plzen, Czech) and Anton Khudobin (Atlant Moscow Oblast, Russia).
Ryan stays put
Anaheim forward Bobby Ryan, who in a fit of frustration last season said he didn’t care if the Ducks traded him, told the Courier-Post in New Jersey last week that he has little interest in heading overseas while the NHL remains on sabbatical. “I think it’s important to stay here,’’ he said, “and be part of the solution and not just run from it.’’ Days earlier, ex-Bruins coach/broadcast icon Don Cherry tweeted his disdain for some NHLers heading overseas. “Please forgive me,’’ Cherry wrote under his account, @CoachsCornerCBC, “if I seem bitter about millionaires going overseas to take jobs away.’’
A few suggestions
Once the NHL returns to action, no one should expect a rulebook overhaul like last time, when the red line was removed and the shootout added. Personally, I’d bring back the red line, in part because I am convinced the wide-open play has added to the increase in concussions (not a point with which everyone agrees). As for the shootout, I would keep the general format, including the five-minute overtime period, but after 65 total minutes replace the sole shooter with two attackers vs. one defender and one goalie. The concept would have play start with one attacker at the blue line with the puck, the other parked at one of the two faceoff dots in the offensive zone. The defending team would have its goalie and the one skating defender, the latter to begin play in a spot of his choice between the puck carrier and the player in the faceoff dot. The attacking team then would have 15 seconds to try to score. Repeated shots allowed. Play ends when a team scores, the goalie catches or freezes the puck, or time runs out. If the skating defender falls on the puck and freezes it, the attacking team is awarded a goal. Result: far more excitement than the current mini one-on-one for big boys version. Passing skills would be highlighted. Each side would get three attempts. If more are needed, just keep rolling, similar to the current shootout.
During the first NHL lockout, 1994-95, your faithful hockey chronicler visited Finland for a feature on then-Bruin Ted Donato, who played 14 games for TuTo Turku. Very few NHLers headed to Europe to play in those days. Donato was as accommodating as ever, although his playing time was very limited in the one game I saw him play against crosstown rival TPS Turku, because early in the game Terrible Ted squared off against Finnish star Saku Koivu and both of them were tossed . . . At one point during CBA negotiations, according to a source with direct knowledge of the conversation, Donald Fehr said openly that he expected the owners to suggest contraction at some point during talks. Truth is, the owners have never brought up the issue. Added truth is, they should, because the product would only improve, and revenue sharing would be less critical, if a handful of the 30 teams were shut down for good or moved to more viable, profitable cities — be it in North America or overseas. Players, of course, would never support contraction because of the job losses it would create . . . The Chiarellis have two pugs, Peyton (named after a quarterback visiting Foxborough on Sunday) and Griffin (name after Redskins QB RG3). “Pugs are considered small dogs,’’ said Chiarelli, explaining the sound of the scurrying Peyton and Griffin as he talked on the phone from home late last week. “And they are short, but they haven’t been trained too well when it comes to dinner.”