Harbinger

The NBA Lockout should go down in history as one of the more forgettable labor disputes in sports. The players and owners finally stopped squabbling after missing a few dozen games, and they still awarded a shiny trophy in June. Life goes on.

Hockey fans were not so lucky in 2004-05. No one needs to be reminded of how bad that missed season was for the sport. It was devastating to everyone involved, and years later the game has yet to rebound in many ways. Sports fans who thought lockouts were mere delays in a season were proven wrong. It was something new for sports in North America, an ugly chapter hockey fans would love to forget.

What makes it memorable is that nothing happened. There was no start or finish to the season, and that’s what makes it significant. No one ever mentions the 1994-95 NHL lockout because games were played that season. They had 48 of them, then the playoffs and all that. Sure they missed 468 games that year, but the New Jersey Devils won the Stanley Cup. There is no asterisk or significant footnote. We just move on.

A lockout isn’t real until it’s ruined something, and All-Star games don’t count. Baseball’s strike in 1995 killed a World Series and they decided it’s probably a good idea to never let that happen again. “America’s Pastime” learned its lesson, but while hockey’s last lockout is still scabbing over, another one has been looming for some time now.

Putting the word “last” in front of “lockout” is something new and significant for hockey fans. Considering the relative success the league and its teams have enjoyed since the… last lockout (yuck), it feels strange to even consider another one so soon.

Despite reassurances all around, early negotiations look grim. At least from the outside. Here’s the always excellent Charles P. Pierce on the NHL’s first offer to the NHLPA:

Everybody involved in the NHL should be holding hands and dancing down Rue Ste.-Catherine together.

So, naturally, management came to the table with an opening offer best summed up as, “More us too, yes?” They want to claw back 11 percent of hockey-related revenues, reducing labor’s share to 46 percent. They want to make it harder for players to reach free agency and they want to eliminate salary arbitration entirely. I suspect that, at one point while formulating the offer, someone proposed to have the players pay to launder their own gear on a rock in the Niagara River, but that the “moderates” among the owners managed to shoot that proposal down. This is an opening offer, to be sure, but it’s a signifying one.

Pierce correctly points out that these battles are more about power than they are money. Now that the NHL has survived its own nuclear option, it wants to grab just a bit more power from the players. Starting with a giant swipe is one way to make sure that happens. At least that’s what the plan appears to be.

Everyone loves to predict another lockout, but only so they won’t be caught by surprise if another season up and disappears. There are dozens of link-able columns and plenty of warning signs, but the most significant thing is the perpetual dread we carry around with our labor-related hockey talk.

Since that first summer of Free Agency after the new CBA was ratified, each labor-related bit of news was met with a “Can’t wait for another Lockout” comment. Every cap figure or arbitration ruling, any contract signed pointed to things getting out of control again. Kovalchuck’s first contract with the Devils may be the major example, if only because it was voided, but nearly every major deal was labeled a harbinger of future collective bargaining chaos.

We’ve been expecting a Lockout since the moment players returned to the ice in the fall of 2005. Sitting here in July of 2012, it’s hard to feel like a work stoppage is really any closer. It feels like we’ve just been loitering here until it crops up again. We have always been at war with Work Stoppages. Every bit of news we hear moving forward will only confirm what we’ve already known for years, so what’s the point in getting even more worked up over it?

Until we get final word that they’re hauling out the chains and heavy locks for arena doors, I’m finding it difficult to really involve myself in Lockout talks. August is creeping up on us, but September 15 feels so far away right now, let alone that first week in October when the season really kicks off. Until those dates come and go, I can’t emotionally hit the panic button on the season just yet.

I remember watching a World Cup of Hockey broadcast in 2004, shortly before the CBA was set to expire and lock players out for good. During an intermission, the ESPN broadcast featured an interview with both Gary Bettman and then-NHLPA cheif Bob Goodenow. Both of them were sitting in the same room. There is no video of this anywhere, but I remember someone — probably Gary Thorne — half-jokingly suggest the two just hash things out right then and there. After all, the most important pieces to the CBA puzzle were just sitting there doing nothing. The least they could do was try.

The uncomfortable shifting in chairs and awkward answers told me all I needed to know. We were in trouble.

Looking back, watching that broadcast was one of the most frustrating parts of the entire Lockout. If Gary Thorne could barely convince the two major parties to even look at one another, there wasn’t much any of us could really do to fix things. Hockey was about to go off the rails.

That Lockout taught us to dread lockouts, but it also taught us something else entirely. In the battle between the NHL and the NHLPA, no one is looking out for the fans. Members of both sides will look at us through cameras and say they care, but no one will come to the bargaining table on our side. We are out of the picture until they mutually agree to let us back into the arenas, too.

Knowing that, it seems wise to avoid caring about it all. Until you can no longer look away, that is.

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