It's time to worry about the start of the 2012-13 NHL season...unless it isn't

"I am hopeful this all sorts out easily because labor peace is preferable to the alternative." - NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman"That's the goal. It's a goal I hope everyone shares." - Donald Fehr, NHLPA Executive DirectorBased on your level of cynicism, years of experience as a sports fan or a combination of both, the quotes above are liable to inspire more dread than calm. The current collective bargaining agreement between the teams of the National Hockey League and the National Hockey League Players Association is set to expire on September 15. We know that's going to happen. Anything other than that is anybody's guess at this point.

The current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) has been in place since July 2005 and was preceded by the owners locking the players out which wiped out the entire 2004-05 season. Prior to that happening, contentious negotiations (focused mainly on the implementation of a salary cap for the first time in league history) were forecast well in advance. As a result, it was generally anticipated before the 2003-04 season even began that a major standoff was imminent and that a work stoppage affecting the following season, to some extent, was all but inevitable. This time, there are no clear warning signs of impending doom...or hope, for that matter. Nobody on either side has said much beyond the kind of gentle sabre rattling found in the quotes above.

The last time we went through this (was it really only seven years ago?), the biggest battle, won eventually by the owners, was over the salary cap. A reason to be cautiously optimistic this time is that no single, potentially divisive issue looms as large now as the cap did then. The league has seen growth since it was implemented (league revenue is up to about $3.3 billion now, compared to around $1.5 billion in 2004), and it's here to stay.

On the other hand, history teaches us that very littleserious negotiation happens until at least one side becomes desperate. That means we, as fans, can expect a lot of time to pass with little or no progress or even a perceptible sense of urgency. Also, we can probably forget about either side learning any kind of lesson about alienating fans when these things happen; both the NBA and NFL locked out their players in 2011. The reality is that labor negotiations are part of modern sports and sometimes those negotiations are going to be contentious. Frustrated and angry fans are not what either side wants but fans concerns are also not going to be the focal point either.

What will the two sides talk about when they finally sit down with each other? Here are three key points that are liable to come up for discussion:

  • The salary floor -Teams that don't generate as much revenue as others, or those that actually lose money, would like to see the minimum amount spent on salaries (currently around $54 million) lowered or eliminated altogether. The players will oppose this for the obvious reason that a cap without a floor is inherently and unfairly restrictive.
  • Revenue sharing - The players' share of revenue was about 54% when the current CBA was ratified in 2005 and has climbed upwards of 57% since as revenue has increased. Based on precedent set in recent negotiations in other leagues (NBA players now get 50% and NFL players get 46-48%), NHL owners will probably seek to lower the players' take. Further, the players may campaign for increased revenue sharing among the owners in order help teams in smaller markets or franchises that are otherwise struggling.
  • Guaranteed contracts - Under terms of the current CBA, all contracts are guaranteed. The league would like to see contract terms limited to ten years or less. They would also like to pursue a structure more like the NFL's where non-guaranteed contracts are common and players can be cut and their contracts voided without a buyout. The players will argue that they shouldn't be expected to be punished for successfully negotiating a contract signed by both parties in good faith./