On the Penguins: The cloud on NHL horizon

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It is not, for most people in the NHL, the most pressing concern at the moment.

Not when there is a trade deadline looming, a stretch drive getting near and, in a couple of months, a Stanley Cup to chase.

But it is not one that can be ignored, either. Because it certainly is not one that will go away on its own.

The league's collective bargaining agreement with the NHL Players' Association will expire Sept. 15, and, unless a replacement deal is in place by then, at least part of the 2012-13 season could be in jeopardy.

Maybe just a little of training camp would be lost. Perhaps only a few games.

Or it could be the entire season would be sacrificed.

Wouldn't be the first time.

And while it is premature to fixate on a worst-case scenario, it would be unrealistic to pretend that the possibility doesn't exist.

"I think it's fair to say that nobody wants a lockout, players or the owners," said forward Craig Adams, the Penguins' player representative to the NHLPA. "That's a reason for optimism. But I think that's always the case."

The last time the NHL had a collective bargaining agreement expire, it took 10 more months to replace it -- and, as a result, the 2004-05 season never happened.

The nuclear winter that hockey experienced then yielded the current salary-cap system that was intended to give all franchises, assuming they were well-managed, an opportunity to be competitive on the ice and profitable off it.

Much has changed since the current CBA was agreed to in July 2005, and perhaps no franchise is more different now than the Penguins.

When the previous labor deal ran out in '04, the Penguins were the prototype of a small-market, have-not franchise.

They had not qualified for the playoffs since '01, their fan base had shrunk and management made personnel moves based as much -- or often, more -- on financial considerations as anything to do with hockey.

The franchise was trapped in a self-sustaining cycle of fiscal and on-ice losses, and there were times when its very existence was in doubt. Ownership told anyone who would listen that the Penguins' survival hinged on getting a more owner-friendly CBA and an up-to-date venue to replace Mellon Arena.

The team ultimately got both, and today is profitable and a consistent winner.

Not every club has as much at stake in CBA negotiations as the Penguins did in the middle of the past decade, but having a satisfactory agreement clearly can have a profound impact on how a franchise fares.

Of course, team officials are not the only ones trying to work out a favorable agreement. The players are doing the same, which is why such negotiations can get contentious and drawn-out.

"Everybody is on good terms and wants to get a deal done -- until one side asks for something that the other side thinks is unreasonable," Adams said. "Until that happens, you just don't know.

"And, when that happens, it changes everything. I hope that doesn't happen."

Because serious discussions for a new CBA have not begun -- not that anyone who is not directly involved in them is aware of, anyway -- it is impossible to say just what the most difficult issues to resolve will be.

"We don't really know because we don't know what the league wants," Adams said. "Nobody's come out with their opening bargaining positions, so you can only speculate, and I don't know if there's much to be gained from doing that."

Likely not, but it looks as if the link between player salaries and team revenues will be a huge sticking point. Players now get 57 percent -- up from an initial 54 percent because of a bump in revenues -- and the owners are believed to be seeking a reduction in that figure, contending that some teams still are money-losers.

The NHLPA figures to counter by arguing that the NHL should revamp its revenue-sharing plan to help teams that are struggling financially rather than taking that money from the players.

Donald Fehr, executive director of the NHLPA, fought to get baseball owners to do just that when he was running the Major League Baseball Players Association.

These negotiations will be Fehr's first in hockey, and it remains to be seen how effective his approach will be.

Adams, at least, is not worried.

"I'm very impressed [by Fehr]," he said. "We've known Don for a while now, actually, going back to probably 2006-ish. He came in and talked to us, some of the reps.

"He's obviously a guy whose track record speaks for itself. Personally, he's a very easy guy to talk to and an easy guy to listen to. We're confident we've got good leadership."



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