NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks during a news conference before Game… (Kathy Willens / Associated…)
NEWARK, N.J. — It seems hockey's fate is to always have its joy tempered by anxiety.
Its popularity seems to be booming, but the National Hockey League still lags behind the other major sports in fan interest. Its TV ratings have been strong during the first season in which every Stanley Cup playoff game was televised nationally on an NBC-affiliated channel, but its main carrier, the NBC Sports Network, is still difficult to find on many cable systems.
And so storm clouds hovered again Wednesday as the NHL prepared for the opener of its showcase event, the Stanley Cup Final, featuring the Kings and New Jersey Devils.
Both teams bring great background stories to this competition for perhaps the most revered trophy in sports.
The Kings, the No. 8-seeded team in the West, struggled to score goals most of the season before finding their footing and upsetting the top three seeded teams and earning a trip to the Final for the first time in 19 years and only the second time in their history. The Devils, the No. 6-seeded team in the East, squeezed past the Florida Panthers before defeating the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers to win their conference title.
But while the Kings and Devils completed their final pregame speeches at the Prudential Center and reviewed their strategy one more time, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman had to field questions about the possibility of imposing a lockout next season if the league and the NHL Players' Assn. can't agree on a new labor deal. The current deal expires Sept. 15.
Bettman told reporters that the NHL did a record $3.3 billion in business this season, certainly good news. However, there's no certainty that there will be a next season and that the league will get a chance to top that figure. The NHL lost part of the 1994-95 season to a lockout and canceled the entire 2004-05 season to get a labor deal that, for the first time, included a salary cap.
The NFL and NBA have since gone through lockouts, with the NBA losing part of the most recent season after a dispute in which players' share of revenue was dramatically curtailed.
Bettman said it's his understanding the NHLPA "is now prepared to begin talks," and is in process of arranging dates for discussions. "My guess is that in the next few weeks in either small or large groups we will start to set the table," he said.
He also said he didn't understand the "speculation and degree of negativity" from the media regarding a possible lockout "given the league and the players' association have yet to have a discussion as to what they might be looking for in collective bargaining."
He added, "Labor peace is preferable to the alternative."
Donald Fehr, the executive director of the NHLPA, said he won't predict what might happen in labor talks despite the recent precedents of labor disputes involving the NFL and NBA and the economic givebacks those players made.
"I'm not going to prejudge it. If that's the case, we'll know soon enough," Fehr said. "I would hope that we could have a constructive discussion….because the players thoroughly understand what happened the last time and that forms part of the backdrop of how they approach the bargaining."
He also said it's difficult to predict what NHL owners might want.
"What I can basically say is this: The object is to get an agreement that the players believe is fair, players believe is equitable, what they're prepared to support and what they believe is an appropriate way to resolve these kinds of issues," he said.
"And there are lots of models out there. There are cap models and there are the non-cap models. There are a lot of issues that don't go directly to player compensation that are significant like revenue sharing and a bunch of other things. And it may be, I don't know that it will be, that we're involved in discussions of quite a number of those things, and I'm certainly not going to predict what comes out of that."