By Stu Hackel
Although it's too soon to say for certain, the NHL and NHLPA may have broken through their CBA stalemate on Tuesday when the league surprisingly presented a new proposal to the players, one that may lead to serious negotiations toward ending the lockout and getting the 2012-13 season underway, possibly on November 2, and having it played in full.
UPDATE: The full proposal was released by the NHL on Wednesday and you can read it here.
At an hour-long meeting in Toronto, the league offered a 50-50 share of Hockey Related Revenues (explained here) and presented a plan that team owners feel will address one of the players' major concerns -- preserving the values of their existing individual contracts. "There is no rollback (in salaries)," said Commissioner Gary Bettman, speaking to the media afterward.
This proposal -- which indicates that the owners have backed away from their harsh opening stance and the slightly modified offers that followed -- will now be discussed by the players, starting with a conference call of the NHLPA negotiating committee at 5 p.m. ET Tuesday afternoon, and probably beyond. If that committee believes the details of the owners' proposal have merit, today's offer could jump-start talks on the core economic issues which, until now, have not advanced much beyond each side presenting a set of ideas that proved mutually unappetizing.
There is no guarantee, of course, that the players will find the new offer to their liking.
"We didn't put this proposal, this offer, together overnight and they're going to need a little bit of time to review it," said Bettman (video). "And I'm hoping that review will get us to a positive and constructive place."
"We're always happy to receive a proposal, we're always happy to study it," said NHLPA executive director Don Fehr (video), sounding cautiously optimistic, but not yet committing to Bettman's hopeful scenario. "Our hope is, after we review this, there will be a feeling on the players' side that this is a proposal which we can negotiate and try to reach a conclusion."
Here is video of Fehr's full remarks:
Asked if the owners' latest offer was an improvement over their previous ones, Fehr said, "In some ways I think it is, in others I'm not sure, but we have to look at it in detail. I don't want to reach an overall conclusion until we've an opportunity to do that kind of review. It's unfair to the process and the players would like me to be for sure I know what I'm talking about before I say that."
He added later, "I would like to believe after we're done with this, as I've said, that it's an excellent starting point and we can go forward and see if there's a deal to be made." But he declined to make any further comments on the specifics of the new proposal.
Fehr said that to lower the cap to 50 percent of HRR and not cut existing salaries would mean a "very large escrow." That is something the NHLPA may not necessarily favor, as it has indicated earlier in this process, but he didn't want to make an evaluation of that part of the offer until the PA staff could "run the numbers."
As TSN's Bob McKenzie tweeted, the total salaries committed for the upcoming season is $1.95 billion and 50 percent of HRR will be less than that. So whatever the mechanism is for the players to have their full existing contracts honored will be a crucial element of the negotiations.
Fehr said there were several items in the proposal that deal with what Fehr has called "players rights", the individual contracting issues -- which include salary arbitration, the length of contracts, signing bonuses, length of service until free agency and entry-level contracts -- but he declined to discuss them.
John Shannon of Sportsnet, formerly an NHL vice president of broadcasting (and obviously still with good sources), tweeted that the league is offering free agency beginning at 28 years old and eight years of service (it's currently 27 and seven years), continuing arbitration (the league threatened to abolish it earlier), limiting contract lengths to five years (preserved from earlier league proposals; there has never been a limit) and maintaining entry level contracts for a player's first three years (the league had proposed five, which the players certainly objected to considering that's the average length of a career).
Update: Shannon was misinformed on entry level contract length in the proposal; it is for a player's first two years in the NHL.
Shannon added that the NHL would share revenue among its teams to the tune of at or near $200 million, which is similar to what has been in its proposals. The PA has proposed that the amount be raised to about $250 million, including a $100 million fund to be used at the league's discretion to assist troubled franchises.
The length of the proposed deal seems uncertain, but at minimum what is being suggested is a six-year agreement.
"We hope that this effort we've undertaken today will be successful," Bettman added, "because we know how difficult this all has been for everybody associated with the game, particularly our fans."
Bettman called the proposal "our best shot," and said the goal in presenting the new proposal was to start the season on November 2, have a full 82-game schedule and playoffs, and be done before the end of June. He believes that if a CBA deal can be done within nine or 10 days, a week of training camp would follow and the full season could then commence.
Fehr said the players would also like to play a full season.
Addressing potential concerns that a season beginning three weeks later than scheduled might mean a compressed slate of games, Bettman said it would only require teams playing one extra game every five weeks.
This may or may not be the breakthrough that leads to a new CBA, but at least it will get the sides talking about the big issues, which is the best news we've had in a long time.
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