By Stu Hackel
Limited though it is, the early news from hockey's labor negotiations is good -- the two sides are talking, and that's good in itself. But perhaps there's something more than mere talk to be happy about.
With emotions among fans and observers ranging from unease to alarm, the owners and players continued their efforts to reach a new collective bargaining agreement and head off a potential lockout on Tuesday in Toronto and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr said, "Things are proceeding apace." He characterized the meetings as being "appropriate and businesslike," but cautioned, "There's a long way to go yet."
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was somewhat more upbeat about the negotiations, saying, "They've been positive. They've been constructive. They've been cordial."
"We got into a number of issues today," added the Canucks Manny Malhotra, who is on the Players' negotiating committee. "We're not going to get into too many specifics but the lines of communication are open and both sides have been very productive so far."
This was the fourth time the sides have met -- they previously got together in Chicago and New York; they'll meet again on Friday and continue next week -- and none of the negotiators went into much detail about what's been discussed. We should probably get used to that and, in one sense, that's welcomed news. When things go well in negotiations, the sides like to keep things quiet. It's when the sides don't agree and can't agree that we start hearing explanations about differences on positions, interpretations, perspectives, approaches and solutions. We don't seem to be there.
And that could be by design. Judging by some of the comments made by NHL players coming out of the talks, the topics covered so far have to do largely with workplace conditions, things like travel and player safety. If you've ever looked at the collective bargaining agreement, that stuff is all part of the contract and it's not insignificant. What is being discussed and hashed out at the moment is most likely not the potentially contentious issues surrounding free agency, contract lengths and the split of revenue that will be devoted to salaries.
So we learned from Malhotra that, "The focal point at this point, the owners and the NHL realize they want to protect players as a whole. As players, obviously, we want to be protected, we want to be able to go into a safe working environment every day. So far, talks with regards to player health and safety have been real good."
Now, with discussions like this one, with lots of thorny core matters to be resolved, one of the methods negotiators use is to start somewhere away from the thorns, to go through matters that can be more easily agreed upon. The purpose is to develop some trust between the sides, a good working relationship on solving problems and some momentum. The hope is that when the agenda turns to the sticky points, some chemistry has been achieved at the bargaining table and in the conference rooms that helps smooth things over a bit, if at all possible.
"Both sides want an agreeable new bargaining agreement," Malhotra added. "We both want it to be beneficial to both parties and being positive, being cordial and working through these minor issues early on is definitely a step in the right direction."
So this seems to be the early course the talks are taking, which is somewhat heartening; the mood is not hostile and some sort of cooperative spirit seems to be hovering around in these earliest stages.
Asked if he was optimistic about the way things are going, Fehr responded, "You have to be optimistic when you approach things like this, but I've been doing this long enough; I don't make predictions. You take it day by day, you do the best you can, you try to listen attentively, you try and be responsive when you can. You hope that you explain yourself clearly and the people on the other side do the same with respect to you, and that gets you to an agreement."
Asked if a lockout could be avoided, Fehr remarked, "I certainly hope we can, I certainly hope we keep negotiating until we get an agreement, whether that takes two weeks, four weeks, three months or however long it takes. But all you can do is approach it day by day."
Fehr also made note of the fact that away from the talks, the business of the NHL is going on as usual, with free agents being signed and teams talking to each other about possible trades. It wasn't that way in 2004, prior to the last negotiation, when lots of out-of-contract players were left dangling as the talks went on.
"I think it is fair to say that the environment leading up to the expiration of this agreement seems to be in most respects fundamentally different than it was leading up to the expiration of the last agreement," Fehr observed. "And that's good. As long as things continue as business as usual, that's good."
Chris Campoli, who is a free agent after playing for Montreal last season and also on the negotiating committee, had a similar observation about how the clubs and league are operating. "It has been business as usual I think," he told NHL.com. "There are some guys still out there (in free agency), but teams have signed a lot of guys. I think the League made comments that they were going to continue to operate that way and teams are building their clubs. I haven't seen a difference. The UFA market is pretty status quo."
Campoli is one of those players "still out there" but he was quick to say that of the negotiations, "It's not about me personally. It's about a union, a group."
Yes, this can all go sour when the major issues come up for discussion. Who would be silly enough to predict whether the union and the owners can maintain the cordial mood and the productive talks as they go further? They're even reticent to discuss what progress they may have made thus far. It would be nice to think that what they're going through now, exchanging views and perhaps reaching some understandings on minor issues will be helpful when the rougher topics are on the table, but no one can or wants to predict in early July how deeply each side's heels will dig in down the road.
"I don't think it's constructive for the process for me to be characterizing whether or not things are moving in a certain manner or what our proposals or demands are," Bettman said. "The best work that will be done in this process will be done in the conference rooms and across the negotiating table."
Still, we can't get dismayed as long as they keep talking.
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