BUFFALO – The NHL lockout has now claimed regular-season games, with 82 over the first two weeks – including five Sabres contests – getting canceled Thursday.
With recent collective bargaining agreement talks going nowhere and no new sessions scheduled, more games will almost certainly be wiped out soon.
Sadly, this could only be the beginning. The work stoppage hits the three-week mark Sunday.
“I am shocked, yeah, in essence because … the guys are willing to play and work on getting a deal done while the season goes on,” Sabres winger Steve Ott, a lockout veteran, said about the cancellations. “I think the last resort possible in any negotiation is closing the door.”
Gone from the Sabres’ schedule are First Niagara Center tilts on Oct. 13 (Pittsburgh), Oct. 16 (Detroit), Oct. 19 (New York Rangers), a road game Oct. 20 (New York Islanders) and another home game Oct. 24 (New Jersey).
Losing games is a bitter pill for players to swallow. The last lockout cost Ott a full season. He’s heard the league talk about the record revenue generated under the expired CBA.
“I mean, it’s not like we’re reinventing the system … because we did that in ’04,” Ott said Thursday while driving from Buffalo to his cottage near Windsor, Ont. “It’s obviously tweaking the system. By canceling it … I’m shocked. I’m still kind of in disbelief as they went as far as the 24th (of October).”
Ott fears the lockout and canceled games will permanently damage the NHL.
“What the league has just done to us is a slap in the fans’ face,” he said. “Let’s be honest, I am a fan before a hockey player. I’ve grown up a fan of the NHL. I remember having my first jersey when I was 3. … All that momentum that has been created in the last seven years is basically being stepped on and thrown out the window.
“That’s the hard part for a player that’s gone through the 04-05 lockout. Now to have it again and start all over from scratch it’s extremely disappointing. I don’t think there’s any room for that in the game.
“Hopefully, they rectify this and come with an actual agreement here. … Fan-first is more important than anything else.”
What does Ott tell the fans he speaks with?
“Honestly, I say the exact same thing,” he said. “‘As soon as (NHL commissioner) Gary Bettman allows me to play I will be able to play.’ He holds the deck.”
The sides have been squabbling over hockey-related revenue, which the players received 57 percent of in the last CBA. The NHL wants to bring that number around 50 percent, possibly as low as 47.
The league announced the cancellations in a 51-word release Thursday afternoon.
Predictably, strong words from the NHL and NHL Players’ Association followed.
“We were extremely disappointed to have to make today’s announcement,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in a statement. “The game deserves better, the fans deserve better and the people who derive income from their connection to the NHL deserve better.
“We remain committed to doing everything in our power to forge an agreement that is fair to the players, fair to the teams and good to our fans.
“This is not about ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ a negotiation. This is about finding a solution that preserves the long-term health and stability of the League and the game.
“We are committed to getting this done.”
Said NHLPA executive director Don Fehr: “The decision to cancel the first two weeks of the NHL season is the unilateral choice of the NHL owners. If the owners truly cared about the game and the fans, they would lift the lockout and allow the season to begin on time while negotiations continue.
“A lockout should be the last resort. For nearly 20 years, the owners have elected to lock-out the players in an effort to secure massive concessions. Nevertheless, the players remain committed to playing hockey while the parties work to reach a deal that is fair for both sides. We hope we will soon have a willing negotiating partner.”
It’s unclear when the season’s drop-dead date would be. The 2004-05 campaign was canceled Feb. 16. The Sabres began a shorted 48-game schedule in 1994-95 on Jan. 20.
A full 82-game season appears unlikely unless an agreement is reached quickly.
“You take two weeks, three weeks out of the season and you compress it a little bit, that just makes it even more ridiculous,” Ott said. “The amount of injuries would eventually go up.”
Ott said it’s hard staying optimistic when two weeks have already been deleted. He plans on skating with the Windsor Spitfires, his junior club, and doing some youth clinics while he waits. He has no immediate plans to play in Europe.
“I just can’t believe a deal cannot be reached on their side of things with record revenues, with … all the positives in the game,” Ott said. “I can’t see the lockout going extremely (long). But I can see them being that stubborn because I’ve lost a year. They could lock out the whole year at the same time.”
In the meantime, Ott’s growing a beard he started when the lockout began Sept. 15. He won’t shave until it ends.
“It’s … already three weeks deep and it’s pretty ugly,” he joked. “So I’m keeping it going until this thing ends. It’s going to be an ugly year.”