TAMPA — They gathered Saturday at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in front of the statue of Lightning founder Phil Esposito.
They chanted slogans and held up homemade signs for a local TV camera.
It was a small group — 17 in all — but it carried the sentiment of NHL fans, who today, barring a surprise settlement, are bemoaning the league's second player lockout in eight years. It began at midnight when the collective bargaining agreement ended without a new one in place.
"There's got to be a statement made to both sides," said Christina Burnison of Largo, a Lightning season ticket holder since 2003. "Fans want to watch hockey. … We don't support a lockout."
But that is what it has come to as the league and players association argue about how to split $3.3 billion in revenue. There also are issues of revenue sharing, free agency and the length of entry-level contracts. But the core issue is how much money players should get.
The divide seems wide.
According to Canada's Globe and Mail, the NHL's latest proposal is a six-year deal with the players receiving from 47 to 49 percent of revenue. The players, who received 57 percent of revenue last season, propose a five-year deal in which they receive from 52.2 percent to 54.3.
Owners say they simply are paying players too much. Players, who accepted a 24 percent salary rollback after the 2004-05 lockout, say it is not their job to save the owners from the previous deal the owners demanded.
"It just seems like every time there's a problem, they come to the union and ask players to give concessions," said forward Adam Hall, the Lightning's player representative to the union, who noted league revenues have grown from $2.1 billion the first year after the previous lockout.
"The players just aren't going to roll over," Hall said. "The last deal, we gave a lot of concessions, and it was meant to fix the problems the owners claimed were broken with the system. Seven years later and after all these revenues, they're claiming the system is broken again because their plan didn't work. So it's tough to give back."
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The NHL's fourth work stoppage since April 1992 and third lockout under commissioner Gary Bettman began with a whimper.
The players association released a statement that said it offered to meet with the owners Saturday but that the league said there was "no purpose in having a formal meeting." There were, the union said, "private, informal discussions between representatives of both sides."
Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in a statement there was no point in convening a formal bargaining session "in light of the fact that neither side is in a position to move off of its last proposal."
There have been no formal bargaining sessions since Wednesday.
"It's frustrating. There's not a lot going on," said Lightning right wing B.J. Crombeen, part of the union's negotiating committee. "We're trying to encourage talks and get this done. I think we've made some good proposals, but they're obviously stuck on a few things and are not willing to talk about it."
Bettman, who said the league tried to start negotiations in the summer of 2011, said it is the union's fault talks did not begin until late June.
"Looking back in hindsight, it looks like there was no urgency on the part of the players association to engage or get anything done," Bettman said last week during a news conference. "I can't and won't speculate as to why that would be their intention, but it is what it is."
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With the scheduled opening of training camps less than a week away, it is believed preseason games soon will be canceled.
Teams are removing player images from on and around arenas, and there is talk of pressure points that could spark an agreement, such as players missing their first paychecks in mid October and the Jan. 1 Winter Classic, which gives the NHL its largest television audience.
Caught in the middle are the fans who understood they could do nothing to prevent a lockout. But linked though the web site nonhllockout.com, they tried to make their frustrations heard with protests in New York, Montreal, Boston and Tampa, each of which was sparsely attended.
"Whether or not we got a lot of people, at least we're trying, so it makes me feel good," said Seffner's Jay Tregler, 39, a Lightning season ticket holder since 1996 who organized the Tampa protest that was in the players' corner and portrayed Bettman as a villain. "We were there trying to do something. We were not going to stand by."