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Lockout problems familiar to NHL

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / November 20, 2011

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It’s been so long that only five Bruins recall missing the 2004-05 season, a testament to the team’s youth and how quickly the professional sports planet revolves.

And the labor issues for hockey then and the NBA now are strikingly similar. The primary issues were and are a hard salary cap, luxury taxes, and rollbacks on salaries, with the owners claiming that nearly half the league was in debt.

The National Hockey League Players Association refused to agree with the owners’ assertion that the league was dying financially and blamed teams for being mismanaged. The owners wanted to retake financial control of the league and blamed the players’ demands for escalating salaries.

Talks became personal and poisonous, with hours of negotiations doing little but adding to the frustrations and forging an insurmountable wedge between ownership and the players. And when the NHLPA responded to the league’s offer of a $42 million salary cap with $49 million, commissioner Gary Bettman extinguished the season, making the NHL the first major professional sports league to lose an entire season because of a labor dispute.

Doesn’t this sound familiar? While the NHL floated the idea of “cost certainty,’’ the NBA has threatened a flex cap. While the NHLPA was led by the volatile Bob Goodenow, the NBA players are represented by the temperamental Billy Hunter. Those NBA contentions sound eerily familiar.

“It’s big business and it’s always tough when guys take it personally,’’ said Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference, who was just completing his fifth NHL season with the Calgary Flames at the time of the NHL lockout. “It is a really tough thing to go through because obviously everyone’s careers are so short and your potential to live your dream is pretty limited. We lost a whole year. It was awful but it was just part of the deal.

“But it’s hard to be in the middle of it and not see the light at the end of the tunnel.’’

There were a couple of distinct differences between the NHL situation and that of the NBA for the players. The American Hockey League was a capable and competitive minor league system and the NHL ruled that players under entry-level contracts could be sent by their teams to the AHL.

So, of course, teams flooded the AHL with younger players, making the league NHL-like that season.

The NBA does run the NBA Development League but current NBA players, regardless of experience, are ineligible to play in the D-League.

“The lockout year in the AHL was pretty much like an NHL team,’’ said Bruins left wing Daniel Paille, a 20-year-old rookie in 2004. “The [AHL] all-star game was pretty much who is playing in the all-star game now. It was amazing. It was a good year, competitive.’’

So, the NHL players possessed more leverage because they not only had opportunities in the United States but also in Europe. Many players spent the season in locales such as Russia and Finland, enhancing their skills against other NHL players.

While Europe is an option for NBA players, teams have limited space for American players, especially those headed back to the NBA when the lockout ends.

Stanley Cup playoffs MVP Tim Thomas was a struggling goalie during the lockout year, playing in Finland to increase his NHL stock.

He said the lockout year was critical to his success because he played against such a higher level of competition, which leads to another potential byproduct of the missed year.

Not all players returned for the 2005-06 NHL season primed for a remarkable reentry. Some veterans passed on overseas hockey and returned a physical shell of themselves. Add to that a slew of younger players who thrived with a year in the AHL, and the lockout cost several players their careers.

That could be the biggest concern about a missed season in the NBA. Players such as Grant Hill, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Jermaine O’Neal are all 35 or older and may not physically be able to respond to a missed year.

“I was in Philly, so Keith Primeau, it ended his career,’’ said Bruins defenseman Dennis Seidenberg, who played parts of two seasons before the lockout year. “There were some guys, if you don’t stay with it; it’s kind of tough to get back with it.’’

Already slowing down in 2003-04, Primeau played just nine games after the lockout season and retired. And the previous NBA lockout that limited the 1998-99 season to 50 games claimed victims such as Shawn Kemp and Kenny Anderson, who were never the same after the long layoff.

Obviously, the missed NHL season damaged the sport’s reputation and left a black mark on the legacy of Bettman. But the league also attempted to reengage fans with rule changes that opened up the game and encouraged more scoring.

The NBA still has an opportunity to reach a settlement and avoid such devastation.

And the consensus among the Bruins is that although the NHL has recovered, the sport would have been better off if tensions weren’t so high and emotions so raw during those critical negotiations that could have saved the season.

“It just seemed from the last lockout that there was a bit of miscommunication,’’ Paille said. “Players were just getting frustrated and we needed to solve the problem by coming together as a group and understanding the consequences. It’s one thing for us to pay attention to everything and not take it for granted.’’

NBA players and owners, you have been warned.

In court rather than on court

HIGH-STAKES GAME
Now that the NBA Players Association has disbanded and become a trade association - taking the intense negotiations between the owners and players into the courtroom - the repercussions could be devastating for decades depending on the results of three pending lawsuits.

The owners filed one with the National Labor Relations Board claiming the players refused to negotiate in good faith, which could justify the legality of the lockout. Last week, the players’ trade association filed lawsuits in Minneapolis and Oakland, Calif., with Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, and Anthony Tolliver as plaintiffs, similar to the class-action lawsuits Tom Brady and Drew Brees filed against the NFL during the football lockout.

Such matters could take years to settle. NBA players, through legal representative David Boies, are banking that the owners are afraid of the possibility of losing billions of dollars in court and will pursue a new collective bargaining agreement that could perhaps save the season. But the owners offered no hope after a 20-minute conference call Thursday, making no announcements after the session.

“The fact that the players filed two lawsuits is a sign that this is going to be a more extensive litigation process than initially assumed,’’ said legal analyst Michael McCann, a Harvard Law School graduate who has followed the NBA lockout closely. “Right now there are three courts in different jurisdictions looking at the same set of issues. So if the goal is to have a season, having three separate lawsuits, it complicates the situation and it makes the season less likely. It adds a layer of complexity that wasn’t there before.’’

Boies told reporters last week that he hopes the owners don’t stand pat and allow these cases to reach court, which could result in catastrophic losses for the league. But antitrust cases are difficult to win, and the owners appear ready to test the players’ resolve, especially since game checks are being missed.

“I don’t think the owners are going to make any more concessions,’’ McCann said. “I think the owners are sort of prepared to stand by their position. If the players really want to play out the litigation process, it’s not something that’s going to get resolved.

“I think NBA fans have to be prepared to lose this season.’’

And it’s not as simple as commissioner David Stern calling up former NBPA executive director Billy Hunter, who remains on the trade association’s legal team, to come to a settlement. There are legal hoops for negotiation and the result would be a settlement out of court in addition to a new collective bargaining agreement.

The NBA now has to negotiate with the legal team of Hunter, Boies, and Jeffrey Kessler, whom Stern said is responsible for ruining a potential agreement two weeks ago. Boies recently represented the NFL (not NFLPA) in the lockout talks and is considered an expert on antitrust lawsuits.

“I don’t think there’s a lawyer out there who has such a familiarity with these issues,’’ McCann said. “By virtue of being a lawyer for the NFL, he has intimate knowledge of the law and I think he’s able to know weaknesses and strengths of the competing arguments. And he has made a career out of being a players’ lawyer, that gives him a huge advantage, that he’s able to put himself in the shoes of the other side. I just think having a new person in the room is going to help because I don’t think the bargaining was working with Kessler and Hunter.’’

Allen ignores exhibitions

NO CHARITY CASE
Ray Allen told the Globe he has little interest in playing in charity all-star games during the lockout, although he is scheduled to compete in President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign fund-raiser Dec. 12. He is preparing at a Boston athletic club and is also working with the women’s basketball team at Wellesley. Allen is entering the final year of his contract and his Celtics career could be over if the season is wiped out.

As you would expect, Allen is keeping himself in immaculate condition with a daily workout program that includes running and working on the elliptical machine. He would be ready physically if the lockout ends.

“The couple of times that I have played pickup basketball, I have felt great,’’ he said. “I’ve really stepped it up on the treadmill and on the street when I have been running. Conditioning-wise, I feel so good that the times I have played basketball, I didn’t feel less in shape. I didn’t feel slower, I felt like I was right on point. But there’s never really game shape when I am on the floor, it’s how you feel afterward, how you come down from it the next day, your recovery. I try to recover better and get stronger.

“If the season starts and we have a fresh schedule with a lot of games in a short amount of time, my body has to be ready to endure that.’’

There have been no plans for a team workout, especially since there are only seven signed players and they are scattered all over the country.

“That’s the challenge,’’ he said. “Everybody was close when the season came down to the end of September, but talks stalled and everybody went and branched out to where they need to go to get their workouts in and be around their families.’’

When asked why he doesn’t participate in the various charity games, such as the Boston All-Star Classic last night at Harvard, Allen said, “It’s not really smart. You can get hurt doing anything but you just run the risk. I think playing in those all-star games, you know there’s no defense played. I’d rather go to the gym and get on the treadmill and do what I have to do to stay in shape.’’

The time off also allows Allen to spend time at home with his wife, Shannon, and three sons. The younger Allens are accustomed to dad being scarce at this time of year.

“My 7-year-old [Walter], he wanted some cookies the other day in the cabinet,’’ said Allen. “And dinner was about to be served so I come in the room, and I walked in at the right time and said, ‘Nope, nobody’s getting any cookies, food is about to be served,’ and the next thing out of his mouth was, ‘Dad, when does your season start?’ They know I’m the enforcer and I’m enforcing right now.

“It’s definitely a positive side to it. I’m sure a lot of guys who have kids get a chance to drop their kids off at school, and it’s great to be home for them.’’

Overseas an option

ETC.
You can bet now that the season is in serious jeopardy that several players will seek jobs overseas. Kevin Durant is the latest to show interest in playing abroad, saying that playing in another country is intriguing. Meanwhile, Dwyane Wade said he would consider playing overseas because he does not want to lose another year of his career. Wade was a Proposition 48 case at Marquette and also missed a combined 62 games over two seasons (2006-07, 2007-08) with injuries.

Layups

Aaron Brooks agreed to a contract with a Chinese team. Brooks is a player the Celtics may want to look at when China’s season ends in March. He consistently burns the Celtics, and his scoring ability and quickness could make him a capable backup to Rajon Rondo . . . One player who tried the overseas experience is Celtics guard Avery Bradley, who returned from Israel after just a two-game stint. Bradley is back in his native Washington and was seen at a recent University of Washington basketball game. Huskies guard Abdul Gaddy is Bradley’s longtime friend and high school backcourt mate at Bellarmine Prep in Tacoma . . . Celtics forward Paul Pierce is the team’s representative for the now-defunct union, but he did not attend the NBPA’s first gathering to review a previous labor agreement, choosing instead to organize a conference call to pursue decertification. And last week as the NBPA filed a “disclaimer of interest,’’ Pierce again chose not to attend, allowing Rondo to go . . . Cuttino Mobley is suing the Knicks, saying the club forced him into retirement because of a heart ailment. Mobley, the former University of Rhode Island standout, has considered returning to basketball the past few years but couldn’t because the Knicks disqualified him medically. Mobley is 36 and is likely done with the NBA but he has yet to file retirement papers . . . Celtics coach Doc Rivers said his son, Austin, has not paid much attention to the labor talks, which likely will involve him because of his NBA potential and the decision he will likely have to make whether to leave school before his eligibility expires at Duke. The one-and-out rule has been considered a secondary issue for the players and owners but there is a plethora of college players this year unsure whether they will be eligible to enter the NBA draft. Doc has maintained he would not mind if Austin left school early if he was prepared to play in the NBA. Doc left Marquette a year early nearly three decades ago. “He’s just trying to be a better player,’’ Doc said. “He’s had good games and bad games as a freshman and he’s just trying to not be a freshman. He has not mentioned it at all.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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