SAN JOSE -- The NHL is only hours away from its second lockout in eight years as owners and players have failed to find common ground for a new labor pact.
All of which leaves Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle in disbelief, wondering how things reached a point where the 2012-13 season is in jeopardy if no new collective bargaining agreement is in place when the old one expires Saturday at 8:59 p.m. PDT.
"It's just surreal," Boyle said. "If things aren't going right, if revenues aren't growing, if the industry's not growing -- fix it. But at this point, the game is as good as it's ever been, and it's very, very frustrating."
Boyle is one of six Sharks who went through the 2004-05 lockout, when the entire season was canceled and the players lost a year's pay.
But eight years ago, there was more evidence the NHL was ailing financially. Still, the players fought the idea of a salary cap to remedy that. When one finally was imposed -- along with a 24 percent rollback in pay -- the owners appeared to get exactly what they wanted.
There were predictions the NHL would not survive that lockout, but fans returned en masse. Annual revenues have grown from $2.1 billion to $3.3 billion under the current agreement. TV ratings are on the rise, and the NHL has never been more competitive on the ice.
But even with a cap, increased revenues have boosted player salaries from an average $1.46 million in 2005 to $2.17 million today. And some
"We have discovered over the last seven years that there are things about this system that haven't worked as well as we anticipated," commissioner Gary Bettman said Thursday, citing increased costs that include jet fuel and massage therapists as well as players.
So Bettman is seeking what amounts to further salary givebacks from players -- now 17.5 percent after an initial proposal of 24 percent. The owners also want to reduce the mandated players' share of hockey-related revenue from 57 percent to 47 percent on a sliding scale.
The NHL Players Association, now under the guidance of former baseball union executive Donald Fehr, seems willing to take a smaller share with some protections, but it rejects anything that resembles givebacks from existing contracts. The players see increased revenue sharing as the better fix, with wealthier teams helping out the struggling ones, what Fehr refers to as "shared sacrifice."
Defenseman Douglas Murray, the only Shark on the union's negotiating committee, said the players are looking for structural changes that bring a long-term solution.
Owners "just want to go straight for our pockets to make the rich richer and help the poor teams," Murray said Friday. "They can't control themselves and want us to give up our rights as workers in order for them to control themselves."
Other divisions exist as well. The league wants to limit the length of player contracts and increase the age for free agency. The union is projecting future growth based on figures the owners say are too generous.
Boyle said the players recognize there are flaws in the current agreement.
"In time, things will correct themselves," he said. "Free agency age, the entry level deals -- those things can be adjusted."
But the idea of a major reduction in existing contracts for a second time in eight years is unacceptable "whether you're making $50,000 or $5 million."
The league's tone during the negotiations this year also bothers Boyle, who is scheduled to earn $6.67 million in each of the next two seasons.
"I remember the last time, the key words," he said. "And partnership was one of them. Where'd that go? We want to help each other out? Now they don't want that."
Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who was playing junior hockey in Quebec during the last NHL lockout, also sees any proposal that includes rolling back salaries as a problem.
"If you sign for $5 million, I would hope the player would want $5 million and nothing less," said Vlasic, 25, who inked a five-year, $21.25 million contract extension in July. "I don't think there's one player that wants to give back any percent of their salary."
At this point, no one expects the NHL and its players to resolve their differences in time to avoid a lockout. The big question then becomes how ugly things get -- Fehr has not rejected the possibility of challenging the salary cap itself -- and how long it takes for a settlement.
With training camp not set to open until Sept. 21, there would seem to be a six-day window for an agreement with no discernible disruption to the coming season.
For more on the Sharks, see David Pollak's Working the Corners blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/sharks.