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On the Ice and at the Table: Silence

Sabres season on hold as lockout continues

This Saturday, the Sabres were to have opened the new season of NHL hockey at First Niagara Center, as the Pittsburgh Penguins were set to come to town. New players, a sense of anticipation in the air, throngs of fans hoofing it to the front door of the arena, walking amidst cranes and construction equipment and fencing as our Inner Harbor finally takes shape.

But the arena will be silent. The doors will not open, the streets will be empty. Besides the fact that yet another season of hockey and the joy of our local pastime is in jeopardy, the economic impact will be staggering—lost salaries for players and arena workers, and lost revenue for the hotels and restaurants and bars for which those 41-plus hockey games are an economic lifeblood are just a few examples.

There was one promising development this past weekend: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and his sidekick Bill Daly unexpectedly traveled to Toronto to drop in on the NHL Players Association meetings and see if there was a framework to restart negotiations.

Read that correctly: This was not a negotiation. This was a negotiation to see if there could be a negotiation to begin negotiating. Got that?

Looking back at the 2004-05 lockout, which led to the eventual cancellation of that season, remember that the whole season wasn’t written off until February 16. Despite the fact that the NHL had indicated that games would have to resume by mid-January for a meaningful season to take place, the league pretty much figured that a short season and an extended playoff format that would take the Stanley Cup playoffs right to the end of June could still work.

The issue that year was “cost certainty.” The league had presented the argument that player salaries were consuming as much as 75 percent of league-wide revenue, and that this path was not sustainable. Bettman argued that owners would lose less money by simply shutting their doors and mothballing their arenas than by continuing to stage the product and pay out money at such a pace. The league demanded “linkage” to team revenues, and a hard salary cap, two concepts that the players were loath to accept.

The brinksmanship continued, and just like today, the league cancelled games in two week swaths at a time while the two sides stared each other down and postured for public sentiment.

As the calendar finally tripped to February that year, the league announced a drop dead date—then they made one more offer, and it was shocker: If the players would accept a hard salary cap, there would be no more “linkage” to overall revenues.

It was a huge move away from an entrenched position, but it also came with the proviso that the salary cap would be established at a non-negotiable $42.5 million per team, and also that the offer was not an invitation to restart negotiations. It was a take-it-or-leave-it offer.

NHLPA leader Bob Goodenow did not take the offer, nor did he leave it. He countered with a $49 million salary cap, which in itself was a breakthrough since the lockout began with a line in the sand that the players would never accept a cap. Goodenow also wanted a period of time where a luxury tax would be put into place so that higher payroll teams would not have to sell off their players. But the very offer of a salary cap system from the players came way too late to do anything meaningful towards the negotiations.

A last-ditch effort was made, this one by hockey icons Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky, who agreed to step in as mediators. Each side walked into that fateful final meeting thinking that the two hockey legends would be broaching the dispute from their perspectives. It didn’t happen. The staredown —similar to what is going on right now—continued in an embarrassing fashion at that gathering. By the time it was over, the league’s fate was sealed: For the first time ever there would be no National Hockey League season.

The prospects for settling the current dispute look even less promising. Bettman will stand by and defend his failed “Southern Strategy,” whereby he has directed the placement of franchises in dispassionate hockey markets in an attempt to achieve a national footprint. Meantime, NHLPA head Donald Fehr, who has a shrill history of labor disputes and edginess during his baseball days, will dig in as long as it takes because for him winning is everything.

The billionaire owners are flush with cash, have other vital interests, and can leave the doors closed as long as it takes. The players already command ridiculous salaries and most have an ample rainy day fund. Job opportunities overseas beckon and some have already left.

The bottom line? Don’t expect NHL hockey in our town anytime soon.

Taro Sez…

• Will there be blue ice too? Taro will be in attendance at First Niagara Center on Tuesday, October 23, when the AHL Rochester Americans face the Hamilton Bulldogs (7:35pm faceoff). For now, this is as good as it gets.

• For road trip options, check out the Amerks at Blue Cross Arena, or the ECHL Elmira Jackals at First Arena. Across the border, the OHL Niagara Ice Dogs are a just a long slapshot away from the QEW.

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