Time is running out for NHL owners, players in lockout mess

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Imagine the Big Four meeting Friday in Toronto -- NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and his deputy, Bill Daly; NHL Players' Association executive director Don Fehr and his brother, Steve Fehr.

Now imagine a popsicle sitting in the center of the table. The Big Four's job is to divide it.

Because the popsicle is already out of the freezer, it is melting steadily, drip by drip, day by day. The faster the Big Four reach an agreement, the more they will have to divide. The longer they take, the less will be left. Eventually, there comes a point where the popsicle won't be a popsicle anymore -- just a pool of goo, a sticky mess.

The NHL lockout is a textbook bargaining dilemma. Literally. The popsicle metaphor has been used in college textbooks like the one written by Rodney Fort, a professor of sports management at the University of Michigan.

"How long can the owners wait?" Fort said. "How long can the players wait?"

Fort's conclusion: not long.

And not because of the big game at the Big House across campus from his office -- the Winter Classic outdoor showcase, which is supposed to draw a record crowd of 110,000-plus to Michigan Stadium to watch the Detroit Red Wings host the Toronto Maple Leafs on New Year's Day. This is about more than one game, no matter how big.

We've looked at this before. But in the wake of Thursday's cancellation of the first two weeks of the regular-season schedule, let's do it again from another perspective. Let's ignore the emotion and spin, and let's look at the logic: Fort thinks both the owners and the players have too much to lose -- not just the players -- and the Big Four are too experienced and intelligent to let the popsicle melt too much.

Yes, Bettman and Daly canceled an entire season in 2004-05, just as the Fehrs wiped out a World Series in 1994 with the Major League Baseball Players Association. But you have to examine the facts at the time in those industries, not just glance at the names involved,and this time the facts suggest to Fort a solution will come sooner rather than later.

"I still have this fundamental, analytical belief that we could hear them just reach an agreement any day," Fort said with a laugh. "I really have a hard time believing they're actually that very far apart. … I won't be at all surprised [if they reach an agreement] after the weekend, or next weekend."

Now, Fort means an agreement in principle on the core issues, not a sewn-up CBA, and he allows this could continue as an illogical game of chicken. But he said that a few hours before the news broke of the Big Four's unexpected meeting Friday. And as we've said from the beginning, there doesn't need to be a long lockout.

Fort's outside, objective analysis bolsters that case. It is what has made this so infuriating so far; it is what could ultimately end it.

"This one," Fort said, "is so dramatically different from the last."

This is not 2004-05. Back then, it was simply not in the owners' economic interest to play. It was easy for them to shut down the league. "They actually lost less money than if they had run it," Fort said. It was a battle over the very system -- the owners demanding a salary cap, the players refusing.

This time, the owners say they need relief from skyrocketing costs, and as many as 18 teams are losing money, according to Forbes magazine. But the fact remains that the NHL has enjoyed seven years of record revenues, and both sides are working within the salary cap system.

The players are not willing to take the immediate pay cut the owners are demanding -- the major sticking point, at the moment -- but they are willing to take less in the future. They have acknowledged that there are financial issues in some markets, and they have made major concessions worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The more the game grows, the more the owners will benefit.

We have focused more on the leverage the owners have via the lockout. By one estimate based on the owners' last proposal, if the players miss just eight games, they will be taking the pay cut they are refusing to take. Bettman has said: "Even a brief lockout will cost more in terms of lost salary and wages than what we're proposing."

But while the players can't win, in a sense, they have some leverage in terms of getting a deal done. The players' concessions, in a way,addto the pressure on the owners.

"The owners actually have a prize," Fort said. "It might not be exactly the prize they want, but there is a prize. The players have offered them something, and they're paying a price while they wait.

"The basics of it are pretty straightforward: The NHL has to weigh what they demand versus what they're offered."

Ideally,you would split the popsicle 50-50 before even taking it out of the freezer. Everyone knows what is fair on a basic level, and letting the thing melt even a little just isn't worth the fight.

Obviously, this situation isn't that simple. The owners and players entered with different bargaining positions (not to mention a lot of baggage), and they have different points of diminishing returns. The key is determining what those points are.

"Somewhere out there is the right time for everybody to just go, 'This isn't worth it to us anymore,' " Fort said. "I think what is really interesting here is that certainly both sides know this, and certainly Mr. Fehr knows this."

Is this why the NHLPA has been insisting on guaranteed money -- 2 percent, 4 percent and 6 percent raises over the next three years, compounded -- instead of negotiating on a percentage basis? Is this partly a lockout deterrent? If the owners must depend on growth to realize their gains from the offer, why would they screw up that growth?

"I suspect the way [the players have] structured their offer into the future, they've driven the owners as close as they possibly can to being indifferent about the owner position and the player position," Fort said.

"They're not, but Fehr has done his best to make sure it's as close as it could possibly be, so the amount of time that goes by before they both finally just say, 'Look, let's call it a day,' is going to be as short as possible."

The odds are increasing that this could go long. The rhetoric has sharpened, and trenches have deepened.

This could unravel the wrong way.

"We all know what happens when you play games of chicken," Fort said. "We've now entered into a realm where, whether it's small or large, there is some probability that through no real intent of either side you get to the end. … Sometimes they lead to a tragic consequence."

But the odds still favor a season, some kind of season. That the Big Four met quietly Friday -- with no public posturing -- was a good sign. If there is going to be progress, it's probably going to start there. If they can figure out a way to let the players keep what they have now but split the popsicle about 50-50 in the future, it should lead to a deal.

They should have done it already. They didn't. But at least from a detached, analytical perspective, they should before it's really too late.

"Because they now know that everybody's losing money when the season doesn't go on, they're actually very close together," Fort said. "I don't think they're that far apart. I really don't. I mean, I can't do that calculation, but my fundamental belief in the quality of the minds that are at the NHL office and with the players … the chance that they're screwing up fundamentally in how to divvy up this pie seems farfetched to me."

We'll see. For now, the popsicle is still melting, and the heat is on.

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