The ax had been hovering, and yesterday it fell.
With negotiations stalled on a collective bargaining agreement that centers on how to divvy up $3 billion in annual revenue, the NHL canceled the first two weeks of regular-season games, 82 in all, from Oct. 11 through Oct. 24.
So, for the third time since 1994-95, labor issues prompted the scrapping of games. The Islanders were scheduled to play six games, three at home (Oct. 13 against the Flyers, Oct. 20 against the Sabres and Oct. 22 against the Panthers). The Rangers will miss five road games. Another swath of the schedule could be gone before the end of the month unless an agreement is reached. No further negotiating sessions were scheduled as of Thursday night and players continue to sign contracts with out-clauses in Russia's KHL and European leagues.
If the scenario sounds familiar, it is. The 2004-05 season was wiped out and the '94-95 season was cut to 48 games after an agreement was reached. The league ditched the preseason schedule last month, and NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said earlier this week that close to $100 million in revenues was already lost.
"The decision to cancel the first two weeks of the NHL season is the unilateral choice of the NHL owners," NHL Players Association executive director Donald Fehr said. "If the owners truly cared about the game and the fans, they would lift the lockout and allow the season to begin on time while negotiations continue. A lockout should be the last resort in bargaining, not the strategy of first resort."
Said Daly: "This is not about 'winning' or 'losing' a negotiation. This is about finding a solution that preserves the long-term health and stability of the league and the game. We are committed to getting this done."
Yesterday's decision, the first real pressure point in the bargaining, ups the ante. Players will miss the first of their twice-monthly paychecks on Oct. 15, or 6.7 percent of their contracts. A player with a $1 million contract will lose $77,000. Should the lockout last through November, four paychecks will be lost.
Over the next two weeks, the owners are expected to forfeit more than $100 million. Sponsors, television networks who pay rights fees to broadcast the games and arena workers will feel the impact as well.
The sticking point is the owners' aim to sharply reduce the players' share of hockey-related revenues from the 57 percent they have been receiving. The league offered a six-year contract, with an immediate rollback that decreased the players' share to 46 percent. The players bristled, having accepted a 24 percent salary rollback in the last agreement, and argued that existing contracts should be honored.