By Stu Hackel
Things are once again at a standstill after the lost weekend of NHL-NHLPA CBA talks. We followed Friday's events and their fallout on Saturday, and, to the credit of cooler heads, the talks did resume on Sunday, but went nowhere. They focused on an area of the deal that has proved to be as problematic -- and will likely continue to be -- as the split of Hockey Related Revenue: player contracting rights.
These rights have to do with restricted and unrestricted free agency rules, salary arbitration, the Entry Level System, length of contracts, the amount that a player's salary can increase or decrease from one year to the next, and similar matters. Over the weekend, we noted that until things ended badly on Friday, there had been some progress and it was in this area. But the progress was only partial. The NHLPA had 19 points on the owners' contracting rights proposals it felt needed attention. Fourteen apparently were successfully negotiated. But five remain and on those five, the NHL is not giving very much.
Here's Don Fehr after the Sunday meeting, discussing why these specific issues are important for the players.
"They've indicated to us from the beginning that the share was really important and contracting issues were important," Fehr said. "We've told them that both are important but as the (players') share is limited, the player contracting rights become not only important but vastly more important, and their response is essentially they don't see the world that way and we should see it their way."
Why does it take on added significance for the NHLPA?
"It shifts all the risks against the players," he says. "It flies in the face of something really important. The players have two interests here: Interest Number One is how big the share is and that's not agreed upon yet either, but the parties have at least moved on that. And the second one is, how does an individual player negotiate his piece of the pie? And the answer is the players will have vastly fewer rights and vastly less leverage for a vastly longer portion of their career under the NHL's proposals. We know why they would like that: The owners don't like the players to have any bargaining power; everybody understand that. You can ask yourselves whether that's a matter which is in any fashion fundamentally fair or equitable. So that's where we are."
This is clearly a significant area for a fair deal to be reached and it would be nice for Fehr to detail some of the specifics of the players' opposition to the owners' proposals, but he doesn't here. Sometimes in his briefings he glosses over the nitty gritty and we get sentences that characterize the owners' position this way: "From the very beginning, it's been, 'We want it because it's our view of the world and we'd like to have it.'" Of course, it's not Fehr's job to present the owners' case, but that's an oversimplified view of it.
Here's Billy Daly, then, in his remarks after the meeting and he does go into detail on some rationales of the league's position:
His view is that the player contracting issues that the league proposes will help grow revenues and, theoretically, at least, lead to higher player salaries. But they will undoubtedly also act as leverage against individual players seeking better deals.
Apart from that, Daly says, the league wants to make the system work better.
Part of what the league says it's attempting to achieve is to prevent clubs from circumventing the salary cap. The league wants to codify limitations on teams so they don't sign players to ridiculous long term deals that front load or back dive annual pay. The NHL denied Ilya Kovalchuk's initial contract with the Devils, but others -- like Chris Pronger's and Ilya Bryzgalov's with the Flyers, to take two examples -- were not challenged, perhaps because the league didn't think it would prevail in a hearing, although it did when Kovalchuk's deal was blocked.
It's a laudable goal. Most reasonable people look at some of those long-term circumvention contracts and recognize how inflated and devious they are. But the problem is that restricting teams' spending practices in this way -- intentional or not -- puts the players in a disadvantaged position by imposing limitations on their rights. The PA may suspect that it's intentional and these mechanisms are an excuse to further hold down salaries. Considering the tone that the discussions have taken lately, and how frequently the owners have tried to sow distrust of the union leadership, trust in the league is probably in short supply among the players.
Another point that Daly makes is the clubs want to be able to, in his words "allocate more dollars to established players," saying that the GMs "are forced to make talent assessments too early in a player's career, and it would be better for the game and for the teams and for the product and, ultimately for the revenues of the product, if they could make those talent decisions a little later in a player's career.
"We're talking about one year, guys," he laughed in the video above, addressing the media. "We're not talking about moving heaven and earth."
Looked at that way, the league's position seems quite reasonable -- except not all the player contracting changes that the NHL proposes boil down to an "only one year" difference between the last CBA and the next one. That's an oversimplification, too.
Where it is one year is, first, with unrestricted free agency. Under that last deal, a player was granted UFA status if he was 27 years old and had played seven NHL seasons. The league proposes moving it to eight and 28. But, really, if a GM can't figure out the value of a player when he's 27, he should probably look for another job. In most cases, a 27-year old player is who he is going to be. Now, teams may want to hold on to them longer, but it's not a talent evaluation question at that age.
But it is in another area where the league proposes going one year longer in a player's status (assuming we're still working off the NHL's last published proposal and things haven't changed): when he's eligible for salary arbitration The proposed change moves eligibility for arbitration from four years to five. But Daly minimizing the impact as only a one year change is misleading because the league is also proposing a change in the Entry Level System and those two things work together. The NHL wants a player's first contract to be a two-year deal. Under the old CBA, entry level deals were for a mandatory three years and then, after the fourth year, players could have their salaries arbitrated. What the NHL proposes is after Year Two there would be no arbitration rights for three more seasons. That's a big difference.
One thing that must be kept in mind when evaluating what is fair and what is not in reaching a new deal is that the average length of an NHL career is about five seasons. When it comes to contracting rights, if the owners prevail on what they are asking, they'll have a big pool of players who never can take advantage of any rights at all. That would keep labor costs down and increase the amount that owners can pocket. From the players' perspective, the NHLPA wants to defend, if not extend, contracting rights to give more players a chance to share in the revenue they generate.
There are other significant differences between the old CBA and what the league proposes next, like a five-year maximum on all contracts. Currently there is no time limit. Now, the 13-year deals that teams like Minnesota have given to free agents are ludicrous, and I can see why the NHL would like to end them because they make circumvention of the salary cap easy if these players retire before the last few seasons of their contracts. But to limit every deal to five years, be intractable on that point in bargaining, and not want to negotiate, I don't know, up to seven or eight years, doesn't seem to be helpful to the process of reaching a settlement. But the league isn't budging.
The only solutions to this impasse and the others is for the owners and players to either 1) negotiate their way out of it or 2) to somehow force the other side to concede. Door Number 2 has lots of bad stuff and unintended consequences behind it. There doesn't seem to be a Door Number 3.
Dark cloud in Toronto [Updated]: Meanwhile, the lockout's long shadow darkened what should have been a joyous event at the Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremonies on Monday night in Toronto. Four exceptional players -- Pavel Bure, Adam Oates, Joe Sakic and Mat Sundin -- were honored for their NHL and international careers. Here's the page on the Hall's website linking to the biographies of the new honorees and an SI.com photo gallery on this quartet. They were dominant talents in their time and they helped raise the profile of the sport not only in the cities in which they played but around the world.
In addition, two outstanding men were inducted into the media wing of the Hall: Roy MacGregor, now of The Globe and Mail, received the Elmer Ferguson Award given to print journalists, and longtime Sabres play-by-play announcer Rick Jeanneret got the Foster Hewitt Award for broadcasters. Both are hugely deserving.
Sadly, the thoughts of the lockout were unavoidable and this Associated Press story emphasized that over the accomplishments of the inductees.
There had been calls for Bettman to stay away, as well as Fehr, although they really had to be there as the top representatives of the owners and players paying their respects to the newest inductees. Bettman's remarks ("Even in difficult times we find ourselves reassured to be here to recognize ultimate achievements on the ice.") were characterized by a few as "awkward" and the applause he received sounded markedly tepid on TV.
The whole thing sparked Yahoo Sports hockey columnist Nick Cotsonika to write, "Do you know what the Hockey Hall of Fame really is? It is a converted bank. And do you know what the NHL really is? It is a business, and among the things it sells are nostalgia and sentimentalism. It capitalizes on the reverence of 'our game.' The lockout taints even that.
"Sorry to be so cynical, and sorry to write this on an occasion that should have belonged to the inductees and the inductees alone – Bure's speed, Oates' passing, Sakic's wrist shot, Sundin's backhand. To be fair, Bettman likely had the best intentions in an awkward, can't-win situation. He kept an otherwise low profile, along with NHL Players' Association executive director Don Fehr.
"But we did not find ourselves reassured; we found ourselves infuriated further. While we recognized ultimate achievements on the ice, we also recognized you have to be on the ice to achieve the ultimate."
And now, this lockout has even tarnished the game's past. What a shame.
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