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Lockout of NHL players imminent

| Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby meets with the media following the NHLPA meeting at Marriott Marquis Times Square on Sept. 13, 2012 in New York City. Getty Images
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby meets with the media following the NHLPA meeting at Marriott Marquis Times Square on Sept. 13, 2012 in New York City. Getty Images

The National Hockey League is on ice if Saturday passes without a collective bargaining agreement.

Owners will lock out players at 11:59 p.m. for the second time since 2004.

The league and union are stuck on a fundamental difference in revenue split. The last agreement allowed players to receive 57 percent. A proposal the league made on Wednesday would let owners claim 51 percent in the first year of a six-year deal.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said that deal is off the table if the lockout deadline passes without an agreement.

No negotiations are scheduled.

Yet Penguins fans who began receiving season tickets within the past 10 days can hold out hope that training camp will open as scheduled on Sept. 21. And the real deadline for hockey fans is Oct. 12, the scheduled start of regular season.

“A lockout with no missed games in the fans' minds is only a timeout,” said Lynn Lashbrook, president of Portland-based agency Sports Management Worldwide. “Start missing, and then fans start to notice.”

The league doesn't permit Penguins officials to speak during labor negotiations, but the team confirmed its business-as-usual approach to ticket sales, and preparations continue at least until Friday.

Club officials and coaches cannot contact players during a lockout.

The Penguins' first home game is against the New York Islanders on Oct. 12. The club has not announced contingencies for season-ticket holders because exhibition and regular-season games technically could go on as scheduled.

The Penguins are scheduled to play three exhibition games at Consol Energy Center, starting Sept. 26 against Detroit. The loss of those contests would not significantly impact money the club brings to Pittsburgh, the head of the city's tourism agency said.

A regular-season Penguins home game generates $2.178 million in spending on average, said VisitPittsburgh CEO Craig Davis. That includes revenue to the Penguins from ticket sales and concessions.

A lockout would hit the Penguins at the height of their popularity. They have played before capacity home crowds since 2007, and their TV ratings are the highest for any NHL or National Basketball Association team. Captain Sidney Crosby remains the face of hockey in North America, and his teammate, Evgeni Malkin, is reigning NHL scoring champion and MVP.

“Everybody knows what a good thing Pittsburgh has going, how great of a hockey city it has become and how important the market is in the United States,” said Craig Button, an analyst for NHL Network and a former league general manager. “I'm sure that's one of the big reasons Sidney never wanted to leave.”

Crosby signed a 12-year extension worth $104.4 million on July 1. Every penny is guaranteed, and team owners instructed General Manager Ray Shero to exhaust all costs to retain Malkin, who has two years remaining on his contract.

Crosby said this week he would play elsewhere if an extended lockout occurs. Malkin is set to play his first game with Magnitogorsk, his Russian hometown, of the Kontinental Hockey League on Sunday.

“In my case, not playing much in the last year and a half, I want to play,” Crosby said. Concussion symptoms allowed him to play only 22 regular-season games since Jan. 5, 2011.

Malkin told the Tribune-Review he will not return to Pittsburgh during a lockout.

“I need to play,” he said. “At home, they'll let me.”

Joe Dawso, whose Smokin' Joe's Saloon in the South Side benefits from the Penguins' popularity, said fans watch games at his establishment because of stars such as Crosby and Malkin. A lockout would need to stretch into January before his bar would feel a dramatic impact.

“There's not a lot going on then, especially when football season is over,” Dawso said. “I can't put an exact number on it, but as the Pens have become more popular over the years, you can see there are more people coming out to watch, especially when they are on the road.”

This is the third lockout for Bettman, who has held his post since 1993. Union Executive Director Don Fehr was hired in 2010, but in three decades with the Major League Baseball union he was part of five work stoppages — including a 1994 strike that cancelled the World Series.

“Something close to a 50-50 split will eventually be it for the NHL and the Players Association,” said Larry Silverman, the Pirates baseball legal counsel from 2002-11. “That's where the (National Football League) and NBA ended up, basically. That's where this seems to be going for all sports with a salary cap.”

Since 2011, the NFL and NBA each reached terms on 10-year agreements that split revenue with players at or slightly below 50-50.

MLB, which hasn't had a work stoppage since 1995, does not use a salary cap, but Bettman said the NHL is “not interested in a system like baseball.”

Crosby said Thursday the likelihood of starting the regular-season on time was “not looking good.”

The league could not miss more than a month of games before risking the 82-game schedule, league sources said. By November, arena availability and schedule redrafting would present challenges. Unlike in the NBA's shortened last season, NHL players cannot play three games in as many nights or four games every week for fewer than six months.

The league does not intend to extend its season beyond mid-June, when the Stanley Cup Final is scheduled to conclude, the sources said.

A potential bright spot for hockey fans is that this work stoppage is about money, not a fundamental system alteration such as a salary cap.

“It's easier to come to terms on a number,” said David Scrupp, an antitrust lawyer with New York-based Constantine Cannon. “Players want to play and owners want to use them. If it just comes down to just agreeing on a number, eventually that always happens before too long.”

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-380-5635.

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