As 2012 NHL lockout nears one month mark, concerns grow

Justin K. Aller - Getty Images

As the NHL lockout nears one full month there are growing concerns regarding an NHLPA special weapon, as well as whether some Russian players will return to the NHL once a CBA agreement is finally reached.

Another day of CBA negotiations came and went on Wednesday with little hope in NHL lockout land.

As a result, what was supposed to be a day-long expression of childlike anticipation for Thursday's opening night will give way to hearing the usual "news" of a lack of progress being made between the league and NHLPA. You know, the same thing being conveyed on each of the rare occasions the sides have actually met to talk about anything pertinent towards reaching harmony since the negotiations commenced.

As a matter of fact talks have been about as productive as if the principal parties were each talking to an empty chair -- kind of like Clint Eastwood at last month's Republican National Convention -- the way negotiations have proceeded thus far through the near month-long lockout.

The lack of anything significant being accomplished to this point by the anointed "Big Four" -- Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly on the league's side, with Executive Director Donald Fehr and brother and special counsel Steve Fehr advocating on behalf of the NHLPA -- is due to the fact the adversaries refuse to discuss any of the paramount core economic issues.

There will be nothing of substance to signify any movement until the vast chasm caused by the allocation of hockey related revenue (HRR) is brought back into the forefront. That is very unlikely to happen anytime soon, since the only way the NHL says they will negotiate is if the players' association first concedes to a massive salary rollback.

After already taking a 24 percent pay cut and allowing a hard salary cap to be instituted just seven short years ago, an extremely united NHLPA is digging their heels in for the long haul.

The entire 2004/05 season was lost due to a lockout and with the way both sides have refused to compromise this time around -- or sometimes even communicate -- over the past two months, this work stoppage could end up stretching even longer.

The NHL was scheduled to open it's 2012/13 campaign tonight with four games, but the arenas in Montreal, Philadelphia, Calgary and Colorado will instead be empty. And dark.

So far the exhibition schedule and the first 82 regular season contests (through October 24) have fallen by the wayside, and more than 130 players -- including some of the biggest stars in the game, like league MVP Evgeni Malkin, Henrik Zetterberg, Claude Giroux, Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk, John Tavares, Zdeno Chara, Alex Ovechkin, Erik Karlsson, and Anze Kopitar, among others -- have bolted to Europe to seek alternate employment during the NHL shutdown. Others such as Sidney Crosby are exploring their options, hoping sanity prevails while waiting to see if the lockout drags into November before making a decision whether or not to make the jump.

Two troubling issues could be on the horizon; one that could adversely affect the already dismal complexion of negotiations, and another that may be a major concern when the league readies to resume NHL hockey again.

NHLPA set to drop a bomb on the league?

Don Fehr has what amounts to a nuclear weapon in his arsenal, something that could blow an even wider gap between the sides in the ongoing stalemate. That is throwing the salary cap -- a concession Bettman fought so hard to get from the players in 2005 -- back into the mix of negotiable items. While he hasn't made an issue of it as of yet, Fehr has hinted that he may employ the strategy at some point.

With the league's hard-line stance on player salary givebacks being at the top of any future NHLPA proposal, who could blame Fehr for eventually going that route? If the NHL is going to take a non-compromising, hardline stance in their demands, the players may go on the offensive with some of their own, and rescinding an agreeable posture regarding the cap is one of their biggest trump cards.

The downside for Fehr is that he knows should he decide to go with that tactic, losing just one season to the current stoppage may end up being a conservative estimate.

As Daly stated Wednesday if the NHLPA's desire is to get the players back on the ice as soon as possible, "that (throwing the salary cap back into the mix) won't get the players on the ice soon."

Staying in Russia after CBA resolution?

Once the lockout finally resolves, there could be an issue with some players returning -- even though they have contracts with NHL clubs. This has been several mentions of this option already and whether it's a realistic threat or just something of a posturing ploy, there could be a scenario where players challenge the validity of their pacts in North America.

The first to articulate the possibility of remaining in Russia once a CBA agreement is reached was Ovechkin, currently skating for Dynamo Moscow of the KHL.

"As to the future, it will depend on what kind of conditions there will be in the NHL with the new CBA", the Washington Capitals' captain told Russian news agency RIA Novosti in mid-September. "If our contracts get slashed, I will have to think whether to return there or not. I won't rule out staying in the KHL, even past this season."

Philadelphia Flyers' netminder Ilya Bryzgalov echoed Ovechkin's sentiments last week.

"I think some of the Russian players may not return to the NHL because you have everything here and major companies are going to pay top players here big money. And especially for Russian players who can play at home in front of their home fans and families and earn even bigger money than they have in the National Hockey League."

Bryzgalov continued.

"NHL owners, they create this situation and put themselves in this situation. If you watch what they did consistently, like saying 'It's going to be lockout. We're not happy with the system, we can't operate with the system that we had'. And they continued to sign players during the negotiation process, signing the players to long-term contracts for big amounts."

While he admitted overall conditions in the NHL are better than the KHL, New Jersey Devils' sniper Ilya Kovalchuk said he "really didn't care" if there was an NHL season and he would be "delighted to play it out here" were there to be no 2012/13 NHL season.

Then Wednesday after what turned out to be yet another brief meeting between the league and NHLPA, Detroit Red Wing Zetterberg offered his two cents on the matter.

"I know for a fact Russians will probably stay. I can't blame them, either. The Russian league treats players a different way. For them to play in their home country and not have these disputes every other year. And they honor their contracts over there. If you sign a deal, that's the deal you get."

Like Bryzgalov, Zetterberg said if players decide to leave the NHL, the league's owners have to look only as far as a mirror to look for those to blame.

"It's not out decision whether to play (NHL) games. We were willing to play under the old CBA while they figured out the new one, but the league didn't want to do that. If they don't want us playing here, we just got to look for some other places to play."

There are numerous reasons as to why it's not likely these players don't come back when the NHL starts up again, not to mention the agreement between the league and KHL to honor the contracts of players in their respective leagues.

That's not to say KHL couldn't make a play for some of their beloved homegrown stars. With the bad taste likely to be left in the mouth of players after a second NHL lockout in just eight years, it's not beyond the realm of possibility that some would heed such a call.

Remember, there was a transfer dispute in 2006 regarding Malkin and there was also a whopping $12.5 million tax-free contract offer to bring him back to Russia in 2008.

Not to mention the fiasco between the Nashville Predators and the KHL over Alexander Radulov, who left the NHL to play in Russia, before returning to Music City last spring. Then returning to the "K" this fall.

With native superstars in their lineups at the present time there's no doubting the five-year-old league would love to have them stay on, and maybe the longer the players stay in their home country, the more likely it is they may want to remain. While they are paid well to come to North America, if a reasonably similar amount of tax-free money is available in the KHL -- as well as showing more stability at this point than its 100-plus-year-old counterpart -- the desire may be to stay put.

If NHL players are forced to accept another gargantuan pay cut, the case could be made regarding the amount of money they originally signed for, and a sticky breach of contract suit could possibly arise as bitter players attempt to take their talents elsewhere.

The results could be KHL sanctions from the IIHF, and a potential issue with the NHL in making their players available for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

In a bit of irony, from this point of view the owners' could possibly be negotiating against themselves in retaining their most valuable resources -- the best hockey players on the planet.

At any rate, ice is the perfect setting for what looks to be a potential battleground in something of a renewed Cold War.

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