Alexander Ovechkin joins Russian team. No NHL hockey this year?

Alexander Ovechkin and other NHL stars are signing up to play abroad as the NHL lockout continues, with no end in sight. The lockout is the league's second in eight years, as owners and players like Alexander Ovechkin argue over how to share $3.3 billion in revenue.

Christinne Muschi/Reuters/File
Russia's Alexander Ovechkin celebrates a goal against Canada during the 2008 World Hockey Championships in Quebec City in this 2008 file photo. Ovechkin has signed with the Russian league KHL's Dynamo Moscow, a troubling sign for the NHL's upcoming season.

The NHL lockout is well into its fourth day, and it doesn’t look like players will be suiting up any time soon. Not in the NHL, at least.

In a troubling sign for the upcoming hockey season, several players are already signing deals to play elsewhere, including the Russian Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). Washington Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin signed a deal to play for the KHL's Dynamo Moscow, his old team. Other stars, including Evgeny Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk, have also headed back east.

The deadline for a new collective bargaining agreement between the National Hockey Leagues and the NHL Players’ Association passed at midnight Saturday morning, forcing the National Hockey League into a work stoppage just as training camp was set to begin.

“Despite the expiration of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the National Hockey League has been, and remains, committed to negotiating around the clock to reach a new CBA that is fair to the Players and to the 30 NHL teams,” read an NHL message to fans, posted on the league’s website Sunday. “This is a time of year for all attention to be focused on the ice, not on a meeting room. The League, the Clubs and the Players all have a stake in resolving our bargaining issues appropriately and getting the puck dropped as soon as possible.”

This is the league’s second lockout in eight years. The last one resulted in the loss of the entire 2004-2005 season as owners and players argued over the institution of a salary cap and a restructuring of player salaries. There’s still time before that happens this time around – the regular season isn’t slated to start until Oct. 11, with players’ paychecks due around the same time.

“It’s not looking like we’ll start on time, but if things get pushed back a bit we’ll still have a full season,” Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby said Thursday, from a press conference at the NHLPA player meetings in New York. “We don’t want a lockout. We want to play.”

Crosby and other NFL stars appeared in an NHLPA video posted on YouTube, talking about the importance of fans to the game and emphasizing that they wanted the issue resolved. The video ended with a pointed message: “This is an NHL owners’ lockout.”

Many of the issues at the forefront of the ’04 lockout are at play again in 2012. Chief among them is how to split a $3.3 billion annual revenue pot among players and the NHL’s 30 teams. The league wants players to have a smaller share – currently, salaries account for about $1.8 billion, or 57 percent, and the NHL reportedly wants that to come down somewhere closer to 50 percent. The players’ union, meanwhile, wants to ensure that they are guaranteed to have at least $1.8 billion for salaries going forward, as revenues grow.

Part of the players’ argument is that they made concessions during the last CBA, when a salary cap and a shrinking portion of player revenue pie were introduced as a means to help smaller market teams become more competitive (the same argument, incidentally, was used by NBA owners during that league’s lockout earlier this year).

According to the NHL, the strategy, which cut player share down from 75 percent, worked: Seven different teams have won the Stanley Cup since, and the league overall is thriving. Revenues have grown 50 percent since the last lockout, according to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, and the league recently signed a 10-year, $200 million per year broadcasting deal with NBC and the cable channel Versus (now NBC Sports Newtork). 

But so far, neither side has budged, and no formal meetings between the NHLPA and the league have been scheduled.

The lockout will be costly for players: In addition to not receiving a paycheck (unless, weirdly, they are injured), players can’t use NHL facilities, meaning that if the lockout continues, they will have to rent ice rink space in order to train. But for the owners, it could be devastating: Nearly two thirds of the NHL’s revenues come from ticket sales, and teams will still be on the hook for any signing bonuses due to players who inked deals in the off-season.

Pro sports fans, meanwhile, are getting used to this sort of thing: The NHL lockout is the third for a major pro sports league in 18 months, following the NFL and NBA lockouts last year. The NFL resolved its issues and got the season under way on time, but the NBA started late and compressed its regular season from 82 to 66 games.

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