NHLPA Is Willing To Play, But Will Bettman And The Owners Let Them?

On early Sunday evening, NHL agent Allan Walsh tweeted the following:

 “The NHLPA has informed the NHL that players are willing to play and continue to negotiate if an agreement isn’t reached by Sept. 15th.”

The tweet is in response to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s announcement a few weeks ago that the league would lockout the players for the start of the 2012-2013 season if no new collective bargaining agreement could be reached by September 15.

Will Gary Bettman consider starting the season even if a new CBA isn’t reached? (Tom Turk/THW)

The likely idea being put forth by the NHLPA is that the league would operate temporarily under the old CBA rules, and the season would resume as normal, while the NHL and NHLPA continued their discussions.

It’s an intriguing concept, and one that is beginning to cultivate support. If both sides aren’t able to come to a new agreement before September 15, would it make sense for them to continue playing even without a new deal?

The perspective of the players is an obvious one. They would get to continue to play the game that they love and still get paid, making the same amount of money that they originally signed their contracts for without fear of a salary rollback.

Things get a little muddier with Bettman and the owners. A year without selling advertising, tickets, merchandise, arena concessions and other hockey-related revenues is a lot of money lost, but considering the fact that many teams lost more money than they made last season, it might make enough sense fiscally for the owners to hold out and enforce a lockout until they get the deal that they want.

The most precarious factor in the situation of a lockout, however, is the overall health of the brand and reputation of the league, and how much it might get damaged if the league shuts down for the second time in eight years, and third in the last 18.

Bettman already notoriously stated his confidence that the fans would return to the sport after a potential lockout, much like they did in 2005. This is certainly the case for die-hard fans and longtime lovers of the game, but new or casual fans might divert their attention and support elsewhere in the sports world.

Advertisers also must be taken into account. Will businesses want to continue to partner with the NHL after a third lockout in recent memory and all the uncertainty that goes with it? A number of big advertisers might jump ship and never come back, especially if overall fan support doesn’t recover to the levels that it’s at now.

The overall sentiment seems to be that the post-lockout NHL is a much bigger and better product than the pre-lockout NHL was, so the argument could be made that it makes sense for both sides to take their time and negotiate another deal that might also benefit the sport in the long term. However, it’s still possible that thought out and beneficial negotiations could be conducted simultaneously with a scheduled NHL season, without all the damage that comes from a lockout. It’s an idea that must be seriously considered in the next five days for the sake of the league and the sport.

The NHLPA is ready to play. Now the puck is in the NHL’s zone.

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