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Hard bargaining ahead on owners' new CBA proposal

NHL lockout The players have been warned that the NHL's latest offer contains some serious shortcomings. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

By Stu Hackel

UPDATE: Thursday's collective bargaining session in Toronto has ended with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman expressing disappointment at the lack of progress. The NHLPA reportedly offered three alternate proposals, none of which were deemed acceptable. A new post on today's talks will be up a bit later this afternoon.

The first response from the NHLPA to Tuesday's new offer by the NHL has been made public and anyone who believed that what the league has proposed -- which you can read here -- would lead directly to riotous cheers from the players and a quick deal is bound to be disappointed.

After a meeting by the union's negotiating committee during which the proposal's details were evaluated, NHLPA executive director Don Fehr sent a letter to membership and agents outlining the problems. Bob McKenzie of TSN got a copy and you can read it here.

The two sides will reconvene talks on Thursday afternoon in Toronto. A number of observers are calling this a critical make-it-or-break-it session which may determine whether we have a season or not, but that may be an overstatement, unless what is meant is a full 82 game season. A shortened season remains a possibility. No one on the owners' side has said what is on the table is a final offer and, in fact, some have reported the NHLPA will make a counter proposal today.

One of the first points the PA made in their letter on the offer they got on Tuesday is that the owners want to "clarify" Hockey Related Revenue, and that all discussions of the topic so far indicate that the league aims to exclude more streams from the entire pool. That means there would be less money in HRR to be divided and, if that's the case, a 50-50 split, which sounds nice, would actually result in lower salaries. We've said all along that HRR was going to be a major issue in the CBA talks. and we've written about how the term "50-50 split" can be very appealing but very misleading. Apparently, the NHLPA still finds these matters problematic.

Among the other points the union made in its letter:

-- The owners proposal cuts salaries by 12.3 percent, or about $231 million.

-- The way the owners plan to reduce the players' share of HRR to 50 percent while still honoring existing contracts is accomplished by paying other players less when their deals expire. "It is players paying players, not owners paying players," the letter says. "That is, players are 'made whole' for reduced salaries in one year by reducing their salaries in later years."

-- In the matter of player suspensions and other supplemental discipline, which has long been a concern of the players, there is language that allows for a neutral party to hear an appeal. But the league proposes to only allow appeals in the case of  a "clearly erroneous" standard. The PA writes, "As a practical manner, (it) makes it very unlikely that any decision would be overturned."

What does this all mean for the NHLPA's desire to negotiate off the owners latest proposal? "We do not yet know whether this proposal is a serious attempt to negotiate an agreement, or just another step down the road," Fehr writes. "The next several days will be, in large part, an effort to discover the answer to that question." That probably indicates some dialogue ahead between the lead negotiators so that the PA can sharpen its understanding of what the league's offer is about, starting Thursday afternoon. And Fehr will also take the temperature of his membership about the offer.

Earlier on Wednesday, during his regular spot on "The Morning Show" over Montreal's TSN radio 690, McKenzie anticipated the NHLPA's hesitant response to Tuesday's offer, a warning to anyone who thought the PA would look at the offer and say, "That's awesome! We'll take it the way it is."

"The PA is going to grind the NHL as hard as they can in order to improve this deal," McKenzie said. "They are going to say, 'Hey listen: We've said all along we're not going to take a deal that gives us less money and less rights.' And this new NHL offer gives players less money and less rights....So there's going to be lots of negativity, there's going to be lots of ups and downs, there's going to be -- I would predict over the next seven to 10 days -- there will be at least one or two or three breakdowns in negotiations where it's going off the rails."

McKenzie believes, however, that a deal will eventually be negotiated and then go to the full membership for a vote.  "Most of the players would look at it say, 'I don't like a lot about this, but I don't like Plan B even more." What is Plan B? Apparently if the players vote it down or take no action in the next seven to 10 days, the league will instantly cancel a quarter of the season for starters, and probably more shortly afterward. So McKenzie thinks it's more possible than not that the players will go for it, but it's quite far from a certainty.

There is another scenario which some observers believe might occur: If negotiations are progressing, but not fast enough to allow for a full schedule to be played, we could have a shortened slate of 78 or 72 games. McKenzie thinks that path might get suggested by the PA if it allows the union to make a better deal. But he's not so certain that the owners want to compromise their deadline and will prefer to hold this hammer over the players: Make a deal based on this offer soon or we'll slash more games.

Which of these directions the talks and the season take should be decided pretty shortly.

What gives?

This latest proposal, which the PA letter described as "not quite as Draconian as their previous proposals" (that's not a ringing endorsement, is it?), represents the first serious attempt by the owners to get real talks started. Ultimately, the offer may or may not result in fruitful talks, but one has to ask, "What took them so long?" After the folly of the owners' early proposals, this could and should have been submitted to the players weeks ago. Instead, the owners stuck with lowball offers that are now understood, even by themselves, to be a miscalculation that only served to galvanize the players against them.

It's just one of the ongoing set of blunders by the owners in this ill-conceived, ill-executed, self-destructive and probably unnecessary lockout. And now, having put their own backs against the wall, they finally stepped up with something that might be worth discussing. They're hoping that they and the players can reach an agreement in the next week to 10 days so a full season can be played. That would give them the full revenue from the 82 game season and the playoffs. They've already forfeited a good chunk of change -- which they estimated at $100 million -- from a preseason that won't be played, games from which they pocket everything since the players don't get paid in September. The players would get all their money as well if a deal is reached in time for a Nov. 2 start.

The new proposal now puts the players on the spot and probably shifts public sentiment somewhat in ownership's direction because it invoked the seemingly magical "50-50" formula, one that really is an illusion. That phrase gives fans a sense that the league is being fair for the first time and the offer carries the hope that the NHL could actually play games this season, maybe even soon.

But anyone who took note earlier this week of the Deadspin article that exposed the NHL's employment of Frank Luntz to weave his spell upon NHL fans should recognize the league's desire to mask its message and costume its intentions.

Luntz, the spinmaster supreme of the Republican Party, is seen by some as a bad guy, one whose expertise lies in obfuscating issues for partisan purposes rather than clarifying things. The part of the hockey world that lives on Twitter exploded when the Deadspin revelation showed up there and the outrage spread to the internet, like this very good story by Michael Grange on Sportsnet.ca, and to newspapers, such as this fine piece from Michael Arace in The Columbus Dispatch.

"Common sense would suggest anything the NHL wants to communicate to its customers can be figured out on the back of a napkin," wrote Grange. "How about: 'We have locked out the players because we need to negotiate a new CBA that we believe will be better for the long term future of our owners and by extension the NHL and the game fans love. The players aren't happy, naturally, but they've engaged Don Fehr, the most respected labour negotiator in the industry, to represent their interests and we trust he will. We're hoping to get a deal done as soon as we can and get back to hockey with an agreement that works for everyone.'"

Arace wrote, "Whether you call this marketing, spin-doctoring or obfuscation is beside the point. (Me, I’m with the late Bill Hicks, who did not care for marketers, spin doctors, obfuscators, or whatever you want to call them.) The point is this: The experiment was exposed, in detail, and it made Bettman and the league look even more cold and calculating. That is saying something."

It's another strange misstep for the league in this lockout.

It wasn't the Deadspin story that produced the owners' newest proposal, however. That was already in the works. Better late than never, I suppose, but we'll see how far this flamingo flies once the NHLPA finishes poring over it.

That was released in 1977. Here's a very different version that wasn't released until 1998.

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