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The cold war between the NHL and NHLPA

No urgency is on display with the looming expiration of the NHL's collective bargaining agreement with the Players Association.

"Now they will tremble again, at the sound of our silence."

-Captain Marko Ramius, The Hunt for Red October

The NHL playoffs are in full crescendo. Not only have the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs been intense, and with plenty of controversy, but they have also been popular as TV ratings and fan buzz shows. Sure, it's been helped by having six teams (the Rangers, Devils, Capitals, Bruins, Flyers and Penguins) from the northeast media corridor in the playoffs, but let's not have that take away from a very competitive and unpredictable playoffs so far.

But even as the conference finals loom large and the Stanley Cup Finals shortly after, there's a hidden malice that stirs. No fan dares give it more than a glancing mention, instead focusing on the triumphs and pratfalls of the 2012 playoffs.

Yet this noxious bane lingers, unseen, waiting for its moment, waiting for the lull of the off-season to unleash its horrors on the idle masses. Waiting.... Waiting....

In 2004, even less attention was being paid toward the forthcoming labor negotiations between the National Hockey League and the NHL Player Association. To some, it was a formality that had to be worked out. Nothing more, nothing less.

Yet the work stoppage of 2004-05, a lockout of players by NHL owners, was the most toxic affair for the league and the sport imaginable. It was an argument between the haves and the have-mores of the world. The details of the lockout are close to moot eight years later. The league has moved on, under the new CBA ratified in the summer of 2005. But some of the basic issues remain the same (read: money).

History seems to be repeating itself. Focus is on the playoffs, and little attention is being paid to the silence from NHL Commission Gary Bettman, his right-hand man Bill Daly, and current NHLPA head Donald M. Fehr. Any talk of the CBA negotiations is brushed off, put off... It's homework for later.

There was already a volley, a salvo of vitriol, fired between the NHLPA and NHL owners last winter. If you recall the NHL realignment approved by the NHL Board of Governors, you should also be aware that the Players Association did not approve of the proposal and that the current conference and divisional alignment remains the same for the foreseeable future. Why the rejection? Was it out of spite? Partly, but the NHLPA had concerns while the Board of Governors pressed ahead. Ownership did not consult with the players on the entire plan and the Players Association did not just roll over and accept things with their issues unaddressed

In such a radical change as the proposed realignment was, you would have thought ownership and the players union - a tumulus business partnership, but a partnership none-the-less - would have been in constant contact about hammering out the details and making sure all parties are happy before moving forward...

Or perhaps that is just naive?

Since that rejection, there hasn't been much on the subject of the expiring NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement. A passing article here and there has popped up from time to time, like this Forbes article from May 1st. In it, a worrisome picture of hardball negotiations looming is painted by writer Tom Van Riper, noting union head Don Fehr's contempt toward salary restrictions via a salary cap. Fehr can indeed play hardball, and he is a veteran of labor warfare - having been steward of the Major League Baseball Players Association during the 1994-95 Major League Baseball strike that canceled the 1994 World Series.

Fehr wouldn't dare take a scorched-Earth policy in labor negotiations like that and sacrifice the 2012-13 season, would he?

I do not believe the sentiment he would. From the Forbes article:

Despite his historically tough stances, Fehr ultimately wants the players out there making their living. [Tom] Laidlaw insists. "Donald Fehr is a deal maker," he says. Bettman and Daly have already run circles around the NHL's previous dealmaker, Bob Goodenow. This time, they'd do well just to hang on to what they've got.

Supporting the case for a keep-them-playing approach is the fact Major League Baseball has not had a work stoppage since the 1994-95 walkout / lockout. The last near-walkout occurred in the late summer of 2002 when MLB Players Association and MLB owners agreed to a "historic" last minute deal which Fehr was very much a part of.

The 2002 situation had much more potential for damage toward MLB as any stoppage would have suspended an ongoing season, potentially wiping out the playoffs. In comparison, the NHL's Collective Bargaining Agreement expires around the time NHL training camps begin - the very start of the NHL season... That gives the perception that the season could just be delayed and put off until a later date. That lack of urgency seems to be a guiding force at this point.

And with that lack of urgency, the hidden malice grows in size. With posturing in the media by the Commissioner and a lack of tangible movement on the labor front, the noxious bane's potency becomes more lethal, and an interruption to the 2012-13 NHL season becomes more possible.