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Oliver: Hard check: NHL season going by boards

I’m going through National Hockey League withdrawal.

The Bears and the National Football League have been distracting me for a few weeks now, particularly since the Bears have been winning of late.

Truth be told, NFL football is my first love. But hockey has been making a steady play for my heart.

I’ve been a fan for only a few years, since owner Rocky Wirtz allowed Blackhawks games to be televised. That gave potential fans like me a chance to actually see what we’d been missing.

It turned out to be a good time to become a Blackhawks fan. And I wasn’t alone, since the franchise in recent years has been setting all kinds of attendance records.

The 2010 Stanley Cup championship season was even more special, as I was able to join the throngs at the United Center for a couple of games.

I’d consider going again, except that the NHL owners have locked out the players since Sept. 16. More than 300 games already have been canceled.

A deadline to save the entire season has passed, and now games through Nov. 30 have been scrapped.

On Friday, the league canceled the Winter Classic, which was to have had the Detroit Red Wings play the Toronto Maple Leafs on New Year’s Day at Michigan Stadium.

The game alone was expected to draw a crowd of more than 100,000.

Clearly, the league and players are starting to lose some major bucks. Sadly, it’s also the vendors, restaurants and bar employees and support staff at the stadiums who are suffering.

So what’s the problem?

It’s a bit complicated, but it boils down to the owners wanting to pay the players less money.

In 2005, the NHL and the players union reached an agreement to allow for a hard salary cap to be instituted. In exchange, the owners agreed to give the players 57 percent of hockey-related revenue while they got 43 percent.

Last year, the owners paid out $1.87 billion to the players.

In July, the owners wanted to flip those numbers so that the players would get 43 percent.

Not surprisingly, that didn’t fly.

Recently, the owners offered a 50-50 split of revenue, but only if the players agreed to some preconditions, such as allowing deferred payments on current contracts. That would mean that players could have to wait years, perhaps after retiring, to be paid in full.

The players also did not like that those payments would count against the players’ share of revenues in the future.

Of course, the owners probably should have thought through the consequences of the long and lucrative contracts they were handing out so freely.

It’s a bit of a mess, but one hopeful sign is that talks resumed Saturday, and the sides met again Tuesday.

We’ll see whether any progress actually is made.

After all, a lockout cost the NHL the entire 2004-5 season.

That’s one bit of history that this hockey fan would rather not see repeated.

Even if I wasn’t paying much attention back then.

• Joan Oliver is the assistant news editor for the Northwest Herald. She can be reached at 815-526-4552 or by email at joliver@shawmedia.com.

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