With another NHL lockout just days away, some bad blood has started to bubble to the surface.
The league and owners have no bargaining sessions scheduled before the current collective bargaining agreement expires at 11:59 p.m. ET on Saturday. But they're expected to take part in a Tuesday morning hearing with the Alberta Labour Relations Board as the NHL Players' Association seeks to keep the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames from being locked out.
"This is a joke," deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The Canadian Press in an email.
The union also plans to file an application to the Quebec Labour Board this week in an effort to keep Montreal Canadiens players from being locked out. Even though the disputes in Alberta and Quebec would affect just three of 30 NHL teams, Habs defenceman Josh Gorges expressed hope that it would catch the attention of every owner.
"I think even though it's only three teams that may be involved in this, it may put pressure on other teams to say 'You know what, these guy are getting ready, they're practising, they're getting themselves ready to play — maybe we should have our players doing the same sort of thing,"' Gorges said on a conference call. "It's unfortunate that it's not the same laws in every city but I think it gives us an opportunity to put pressure on the owners to try to get a deal done so that other teams can join us and we can start playing on time."
Under Alberta law, a mediator must be appointed before an employer can legally lock out its employees. The NHLPA contends the league showed no willingness to work with the mediator it was assigned by the province on Aug. 21.
In Quebec, the NHLPA isn't recognized as a certified union, which it believes makes a lockout unlawful.
The wheels have already been set in motion for the NHL to declare a work stoppage once the CBA expires this weekend. In fact, commissioner Gary Bettman won't even have to make the case for a third lockout under his tenure when the board of governors gathers at a Times Square hotel on Thursday afternoon.
"The commissioner doesn't need specific board authorization to institute or implement a lockout," Daly said in a recent interview. "That has been granted already in connection with his authority to conduct collective bargaining."
Essentially, the NHL is back where it started when the current CBA was signed in July 2005. That six-year deal — extended through a seventh because of an option held by the NHLPA— ended a lockout that saw the league become the first in North America to ever have an entire season wiped out by a work stoppage.
The union is planning its largest gathering since that deal was ratified with more than 200 players expected to attend meetings Wednesday and Thursday. A number of stars, Sidney Crosby among them, are expected to take part in the show of strength.
"We want to brief the broadest possible group of players and it's always better to do it in person," said Donald Fehr, the NHLPA's executive director. "Whenever you're facing the possibility of a lockout what you need to do is make it as easy as possible for the maximum number of your constituents to hear it directly.
"We're going to have a very large number of players it looks like and you know how fast information travels through locker-rooms, so it won't be a problem getting it out to everyone else."
His phone has already been ringing off the hook. With very little progress to report during negotiations, a number of players have started looking around at other options.
Once a lockout is enacted, they'll be free to sign with other pro teams — and the union is actively advising them on their rights.
"We have to," said Fehr. "We basically have to say 'You have your contracts, you have the circumstances, this is what we think is likely to happen in negotiations. ... If you're going to consider playing elsewhere, here's the things we think you need to think about.'"
The sides remain a long way off in negotiations and have only sat down together six of the last 21 days. Formal discussions haven't been held since Aug. 31.
There will be some immediate changes if a deal isn't reached by Sunday. The NHL plans to adopt a policy similar to those instituted by the NBA and NFL during recent lockouts that forbids team employees from being in contact with players.
"Generally in a lockout situation management shouldn't be ... socializing with the locked-out labour," said Daly. "They aren't employees during the duration of the lockout."
One important difference from the league's last labour disruption is that the owners and players are fighting to divide up US$3.3 billion in annual revenues — a significant jump from the $2.1 billion it was generating seven years ago.
The business of hockey thrived during a CBA that included a global recession, but that momentum could be stalled by the NHL's fourth work stoppage in 20 years.
"We've already damaged our business and I imagine if we go past (Sept.) 15th and we engage in a work stoppage that it will obviously do further damage to our business," said Daly. "All of this is adding up, it's a cumulative effect, it's a fact of life. ...
"And when we ultimately resolve this dispute — and we will — it'll be something we have to deal with as part of the next collective bargaining agreement."