By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) It is a story that is sitting on the back burner right now.
A month from now, it could be a very different story.
While Chicago sports fans are preparing for a stretch run by the White Sox that could (should?) end up with an appearance in the postseason and the Bears get ready for the 2012 season, few are paying attention to the NHL’s labor issues.
However, a work stoppage could be in the offing as the teams prepare for the upcoming season.
That’s because the collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association will expire on Sept. 15.
If the two sides don’t have a new agreement on hand by that date, the NHL may decide to lock out its players.
The NHL, as you will recall, is the only league in the history of North American professional sports to cancel a full season due to labor difficulties. In 2004, the Tampa Bay Lightning skated away with the Stanley Cup when they defeated the Calgary Flames in a 7-game final. They did not get a chance to defend their title until the 2005-06 season. That’s because the 2004-05 season was completely wiped out.
Times have changed quite a bit since that work stoppage. The biggest change for the NHLPA is that the organization hired former Major League Baseball Players Association president Donald Fehr as its representative.
The NHLPA hired Fehr because they got wiped out in the last negotiations. When the puck finally dropped and players finally went back to work, they had to endure a 24 percent salary rollback.
The owners said this was necessary because teams were hemorrhaging cash. That was believable because the NHL has never been able to generate the kind of television revenue that the others sports brought in. Clearly, the NFL dwarfs everybody, but the NHL compared poorly to Major League Baseball and the NBA in those areas as well.
Still, the players felt like they got rolled by the owners and that’s why they brought in a strong negotiator. Fehr had learned his craft at the feet of Marvin Miller, who brought Major League baseball players into the battle against MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn and the owners.
Miller won every battle and he taught Fehr how to continue the winning streak.
Fehr was a hot head who always went for the throat when he headed the MLBPA. Now he is more mature and he has refused to engage Gary Bettman and the NHL owners in a war of words.
He may be seething inside, but he has learned that calling the other side “morons” and “greedy” won’t help his clients.
Fehr may be seething because the NHL owners want another 24 percent salary rollback. Owners claim they need to do this because smaller-market teams are not profitable.
The NHL acknowledges that revenues have hit $3.2 billion and are up nearly 50 percent from 2004 levels. However, they are still pushing for a rollback.
Fehr will almost certainly propose a redistribution of wealth in the NHL to make sure the “poorer” teams are on more even footing with the higher revenue teams. Major League Baseball teams made changes in revenue sharing over the years and Fehr will likely model his counterproposal after the one used in baseball.
Fehr has said that Sept. 15 is just a date on the calendar and that an agreement between the two sides does not have to be reached by that date to avoid a work stoppage.
Bettman has not promised a lockout, but he has said that he wants an agreement reached by that date.
While the rhetoric has been calm, the ramifications could still be brutal.
For those who expect the lessons of the past to have been learned and a work stoppage to be avoided, remember that NHL owners “won” the last time around and they may try to go for two wins in a row.
No matter what the cost.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.