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Kovacevic: Another work stoppage? Over what?

| Monday, June 25, 2012, 12:04 a.m.
According to Pittsburgh Trib columnist Dejan Kovacevic, it’s really looking like hockey is headed for another shutdown.
Associated Press
According to Pittsburgh Trib columnist Dejan Kovacevic, it’s really looking like hockey is headed for another shutdown. Associated Press
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks Friday, June 22, 2012, at the NHL Draft at Consol Energy Center.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks Friday, June 22, 2012, at the NHL Draft at Consol Energy Center. Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review

The NHL Draft has left town, along with all young Tatarians in these parts named Nail, along with all the other wide-eyed prospects and, yeah, along with Jordan Staal. It was quite the weekend, pulled off immaculately by everyone from the Penguins to the young lady at a Downtown coffeehouse who greeted a kid in Canucks garb with a smile and, "Welcome to Pittsburgh!"

Hope you soaked it all in. Might be the last time you see NHL sweaters being donned for any reason for a long while.

Yes, it's really looking like hockey is headed for another shutdown.

And, yes, it's really possible that they can all be that stubborn and stupid.

Only three months remain before the 2012-13 season is scheduled to open Oct. 11, less than that before the Sept. 15 expiration of the collective bargaining agreement. And the number of meetings so far between owners and the players' union has been exactly zero.

Bettman and the owners had their own meeting last week in Las Vegas before the NHL Awards show. When the commissioner emerged, he was tight-lipped other than to acknowledge that the agenda included minor ownership matters and, um, changes to the hand-pass rule.

As for the CBA ...

"When we have something to discuss about collective bargaining, I'd be happy to tell you," Bettman said in that famously finger-wagging tone. "But for the time being, especially since we haven't had any formal sessions yet, I'm going to reserve all my comments."

And when might those sessions begin?

"Probably in the not-too-distant future."

That's probably awesome.

Bettman has been subtly blaming this delay on Donald Fehr, the new head of the players' union. You might have heard of Fehr. He's the guy you can thank for the Pirates' 19 years of losing, maybe more than any owner, GM or yacht-sailing outfielder. He ran the Major League Baseball players' union for 24 years with such authority that the sport's finances have become farcically skewed to favor the big markets.

Bud Selig and baseball's owners still cower at the mention of Fehr's name, nearly two years after he took the NHL post.

We haven't heard much from the hockey version of Fehr. More important, Bettman hasn't, either. Fehr's explanation - through surrogates - has been that he's still immersing himself in information and background.

Be sure that's driving Bettman nuts.

Fehr would never admit it, but making the other party wait is right out of the playbook of baseball super-agent Scott Boras, as the Pirates are about to experience again with first-round draft pick Mark Appel. Boras has been known to hold out until 10 minutes before the draft's signing deadline to make his very first offer. By the time Boras calls, you're so happy to hear the phone ring you'll give up your first-born for his player.

Fehr has to know that, in Bettman, he's dealing with a commissioner far tougher than Selig. Bettman waited 44 weeks and scrapped an entire season during the 2004-05 lockout to get his salary cap. Selig's terrified to even utter the term.

Because of the NHL's cap, franchise finances are on equal footing and mostly profitable, Canadian teams are no longer endangered, and Pittsburghers have gone from rooting for Rico Fata to agonizing over how they'll cope with having only the two best players in the world now that Staal's gone.

Bettman and the owners won't give all that up. No chance. In fact, they'd like further gains in the area of money paid to players in years 4-6, which some GMs - Ray Shero among them - feel are out of control.

What does Fehr want?

Who knows?

Bottom line: There's no intelligent reason for a shutdown.

The NHL has grown its total revenues by 50 percent in the seven years since the lockout, now at $3.2 billion. Attendance and TV ratings also are at all-time highs. And franchise values have soared 47 percent, led by the Penguins erupting from $101 million to $264 million.

The owners are fine.

At the same time, the average player salary has nearly doubled from $1.46 million to $2.4 million, trailing the salary cap from $39 million to $64 million. Players take 57 percent of all revenue, more than any other sport, even baseball. And they're eligible for free agency earlier than ever.

The players are fine, too.

Best of luck to both sides explaining why a single drop of the puck should be missed over that.

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