Considering that very few folks are actually in those high-level meetings between the NHL's players and owners, and considering that both sides keep very tight lips for strategic reasons, I do not believe speculation helps the masses in trying to dissect a potential work stoppage.
Recently a lot of people have asked if I think there will be a lockout, and how long one could last. My estimations are ever-changing and therefore I have refrained. However, I do have these thoughts to ponder:
Winter Classic -- Not A Friend This Year
After five years of existence, "The Classic" has quickly become a pinnacle event in the NHL's regular season, and looks to remain that way for quite some time as the contest has already been annually scheduled through 2021. However, the gift of an outdoor hockey game could quickly turn into a curse if a lockout takes place.
The traditional New Year's Day match is too easy of a beacon, aiming point, or launching pad for the beginning of what could be a condensed season. Subconsciously, it could take pressure off negotiations, in knowing there is a large-scale kickoff event already in place, should the NHL and NHLPA come to terms as late as mid-December.
It is also difficult from a logistical standpoint to see how a meaningful NHL season could begin anywhere after January 1st, even under the most condensed fashion.
Like Cramming for an Exam
It's not to place blame on the players, owners, or even hockey in general. But here's a question regarding Collective Bargaining Agreements across all sports: Why are the two sides not forced to negotiate during the final 12 months of the current arrangement? Essentially, the first proposals should have been hoisted LAST September 15th, so that we would not be arriving at this deadline with such a rushed threat. It's very reminiscent of a college student failing to adequately prepare for an exam, then throwing a last ditch effort together by cramming and hoping for the best. I realize some do their best work under pressure, but billions of dollars are on the line here for both sides, aren't they?
Protecting Owners from Owners
The obvious sticking point between players and owners is money, most specifically how to divide "hockey related revenue." But another interesting angle came out of the league's first proposal, suggesting a limit of contract durations to 5 years.
This, in a single summer where players were signed to 14-year (Shea Weber), 13-year (Ryan Suter, Zach Parise), 12-year (Sidney Crosby), and 10-year contracts (Jordan Staal, Jonathan Quick). One cannot reasonably fault a player for agreeing to these lengthy terms because after all, who wouldn't want to secure (possibly) the rest of their career on paper?
Something to consider is how the owners are actually trying to protect themselves from themselves. I agree -- teams should still have the option to commit to the league's most elite players for double-digit years. However at this rate, it's hard to see how that costly and risky privilege won't soon get out of hand.
Players Have To Stay Classy
For many reasons, the general public is likely to initially side with the players. After all, they are the recognizable faces. They are the ones set to lose guaranteed money in the case of being locked out. And when it's all said and done, they are likely to make more clear-cut concessions than their counterparts. This resonates greatly with the average blue-collar paying customer, in what could essentially turn out to be a war of words.
But ThePlayers, as they like to say on Twitter, would be wise to remain consistently tactful with their message and voice as September 15th approaches and beyond. Because of their social media skills and other avenues to "make waves," the athletes are likely to be conscious and careful, so that proving their points doesn't lose their traction.
Empty Bag of Tricks?
The NHL went to great lengths in recovering from its last lockout in 2004-2005. The league made players much more accessible and promotable to the media and public, in an attempt to make good for an entire season lost. It also certainly didn't hurt that two new "faces of the game" in Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin also emerged on the scene the following campaign.
But one has to wonder -- if there is a lockout now, what kind of tricks does the NHL have up it's sleeve to win fans over again? How can the game up it's ante? Certainly we are putting the cart before the horse here, but it would be wise to consider what more reserves this game has, and how it can avoid tapping out of resources if needing to win over an aggravated fan-base, once again.