The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

November 6, 2012

Penguins remain eager but realistic about NHL lockout

By DAVE MOLINARI
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH — It would be easy to get dramatic now, to breathlessly suggest that the chances of having a 2012-13 NHL season hinge entirely on the round of negotiations between the league and the NHL Players' Association that will begin today in New York.

It just wouldn't necessarily be very accurate. Not the way a number of Penguins players see things, anyway.

Oh, they recognize the importance of these talks -- "There's definitely urgency on our side, and we hope there's urgency on their side as well," Penguins player rep Craig Adams said Monday -- but they also seem to be convinced there isn't a looming drop-dead date for forging a new collective bargaining agreement. And there is precedent to prove it. "History has shown that it's not the end-all," left winger Matt Cooke said. "I mean, in '94, they went back in January, so you could still have a season."

The first three-plus months of the 1994-95 season were nuked by a lockout that limited teams to just 48 games before the Stanley Cup playoffs. Whether four dozen games are enough to establish a legitimate postseason field is a matter of opinion, but there's no question that 48 games are fewer than either side in this dispute would like to see. Such an abbreviated schedule would cut deeply into ownership's revenues and limit players to about 58.5 percent of what they would be paid during a conventional 82-game season.

Such fiscal realities might be what provides the greatest urgency to the talks.

"It's definitely an important time, considering the timing of everything, knowing in the back of all of our minds that it's probably the last chance to get anything close to a full season," center Sidney Crosby said. "I'm thinking that's on everyone's mind. That should, hopefully, create a little more discussion."

The pivotal issue in this lockout, which began after the previous CBA expired Sept. 15, is how "hockey-related revenues" are shared between the owners and players. Both have proposed plans that would lead to a 50-50 split, but the league wants that to happen immediately, while the players, who got 57 percent under the previous CBA, prefer to see it work down to that level over several years.

"Both sides have shown their willingness to get to 50-50, or close to it," Adams said. "The question is, 'How do you get there? How long does it take to get there?' And in getting there, how do you do your best to honor existing contracts?

"There are a lot of smart people on both sides. There are ways to do it. We just have to get to an agreement on how to do it."

The talks that begin today stem from traction created when NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly and NHLPA special counsel Steve Fehr had a series of face-to-face negotiations that began Saturday and spilled over into early Sunday morning. Precisely what tangible progress, if any, was accomplished in those sessions isn't known, but they clearly created some positive momentum and flickers of hope that it will be possible to find enough common ground to agree on a settlement eventually.

"I'm optimistic about it," Cooke said. "I don't know if there's (reason for) encouragement there, but I'm optimistic something will get done -- that eventually the owners will realize it's not worth it."

He was quick to add, however, that players have done most of the giving to this point in the negotiations.

"We've made concessions -- drastic concessions -- and they, up to this point, really haven't made any toward us," Cooke said.

The NHLPA could learn as early as today what the league might be willing to give as the talks move along. Whether the NHL will accept the union's plan for honoring existing contracts, for example, and whether it will be flexible on its demand for term limits on contracts or new guidelines for attaining free agency. All of which explains why Penguins players will be hoping for the best, but taking nothing for granted, while monitoring these talks, whether they last one day or go on indefinitely.

"I don't know what to think anymore," Crosby said. "A couple of weeks ago, I thought things were heating up. I thought we were going to get some traction with everything. "But that wasn't the case. This time around, I'm trying to not get my hopes up."

NOTE -- Cooke participated in Monday's player-organized workout at Southpointe sporting a large Band-Aid on his forehead, where Crosby's stick had removed a divot during a drill Friday. Cooke said he isn't upset with Crosby, but disputed stories that Crosby helped with first aid for his injury. "I should correct previous reports in the paper that he had anything to do with aiding or fixing the cut," Cooke said, smiling. "Because he did absolutely nothing except for laugh." Crosby's recollection of events: "There was a good little chunk out of (Cooke's forehead) but I knew it wasn't his eye or anything, so we had a good chuckle."

Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.

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