By Stu Hackel
Some will think of Day 67 of the NHL lockout as the darkest day of all. It may also be the most illuminating.
After hearing a new proposal from the players that contained some major concessions, the NHL's negotiators rejected it -- politely this time and following a couple of hours of examination, not dismissively in 10 minutes as they did the last time the union presented some ideas that could have been at least a starting point. Still, the owners did not deem this new offer worthy of further discussion. "So basically," tweeted Luke DeCock of The Raleigh News-Observer, "the NHL doesn't want to negotiate. It wants to dictate. Full stop."
In their proposal, the players had made some significant movement, saying for the first time in this process that they'd accept a percentage of Hockey Related Revenue, not a guaranteed fixed amount. They went to a 50-50 split of HRR in Year 1 of their proposals instead of a gradual decline to that figure. They lowered the amount they were seeking from the owners on the misleadingly named "Make Whole" provision to honor existing contracts. That full amount of those contracts is about $590 million. The NHL has offered to pay only $211 million. The PA said Wednesday it would settle for $393 million. It moved the gap on how much the players would share of HRR from what had once been about $1 billion to $182 million. If you want to see the entire NHLPA proposal, TSN posted it here.
“We’ve moved far more than halfway," NHLPA leader Donald Fehr told reporters after he presented the proposal to the owners, "and our expectation is the NHL is going to be willing to meet us if they want to reach an agreement.”
After the evening session, Fehr met the media and characterized the league's response as, "They appreciated it, but they reiterated that they can't move...'Thanks, but you have to agree to what we said.'"
Here's video of his media briefing:
When it came to contracting rights, the players did agree to address the owners' concerns about back-diving deals that lead to salary cap circumvention, but are holding firm on other points. Darren Dreger of TSN reported that in the afternoon discussions between the sides, the owners came back with a new position on salary arbitration that would render it an even more restrictive system for the players. He added there was no movement on unrestricted free agency, but the owners did agree to restore the Entry Level System (the mandatory length of a player's first NHL contract) to the three-year term of the old CBA and abandoned the two years of their last proposal.
There were also parts of the players' economic proposal that many in the media who examined it believed the owners would find problematic, including a new provision that, starting in Year 2 of the deal, the players' share would not decline even if HRR did, meaning if the league lost money, the players would still be guaranteed the same amount of salary they received the prior year. Fehr's explanation to the media on this provision was, "The players are making enormous concessions to the owners and we want some protections on the downside." No one knows how negotiable that point is, however, since the owners decided not to talk further about anything.
There were reports that moderate voices in the NHLPA helped shape this proposal in an effort to get the two sides negotiating, and that some in the rank and file who had not been heavily involved in the process felt that the sides hadn't engaged in enough bargaining. Now that the proposal to which they contributed has been shot down, you have to wonder how moderate they will be going forward.
Fehr would not address that question directly after the morning session, but he said in the afternoon, "I can say that what the players thought the owners had said about 'You have to do it our way on the share' and so on...was worth an effort to see if it could be reached.
"And," Fehr concluded with a little shrug, "we got the reaction we got."
One of those players thought to be a moderate who recently got involved in the talks, the Lightning's Bay's Marty St. Louis, told Damian Cristodero of The Tampa Bay Times, "Well, it's disappointing. I feel they're trying to bully us and trying to draw a line in the sand pretty much. It's tough. We want to be negotiating. We came their way again and nothing. They just keep telling us keep coming. They're staying where they are, so you end up negotiating with yourself, and that's definitely something we don't want to do.
"I don't know where we go from here," St. Louis added. "It's very frustrating.
Here are the Commissioner's remarks:
Gary Bettman tried to both put a better face on the developments and maintain a combative attitude toward the PA. He acknowledged that the players had moved closer to the league's position but insisted, "We're still far apart." Nothing that he, his fellow negotiators, and the owners who were present heard swayed them enough to begin hammering out an agreement based on what the players had presented.
"Today isn't the first time the union has come out of a session and talked about how wonderful their offer is, or how close we were, when in fact the reality was, they were misleading you," Bettman told the media afterward.
"I think everyone needs to take a step back, and I think all of the PR spinning is not going to get this done," he added, engaging in a good deal of spinning himself, saying the owners are all mystified why the players haven't accepted their offer. "Don can say whatever he wants, I'm not going to negotiate publicly."
The NHLPA had planned a conference call late in the afternoon to assess its next steps. How critical was this latest round of talks? Obviously, the sooner the sides begin to get through the issues that divide them and make more agreements, the sooner the season can start, albeit an abbreviated one. At a certain point, there isn't enough time to have any meaningful competition and the season will be cancelled. (SI.com's Brian Cazeneuve asks: When does a short season become silly season?)
How far away are we from that? As a few observers noted on Twitter earlier on Wednesday, the lockout that began prior to the 1994 season was settled on Jan. 11, 1995 and a 48-game schedule resulted. The 2004-05 season was cancelled on Feb. 15, 2005. There are rumblings that the league may not wait as long as it did in 2005 to axe the entire schedule this time. Considering the severe manner in which it has conducted itself throughout the lockout, that wouldn't be surprising.
Further reductions in the schedule are forthcoming, probably as soon as Friday, which has become the traditional day for the league to release bad lockout news. Today's developments don't mean the season is dead but, at minimum, they deepen the self-inflicted wound to the fabric of the sport and signal that the endgame for this lockout, the rationale for which remains abundantly unclear, could be very harmful.
"I love the players," Bettman told Gary Lawless this week in The Winnipeg Free Press. "Nobody should think for a moment that I don't."
It is, indeed, a very strange love.
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