UPDATED: Doomsday turns to progress in player-owner talks
By Stu Hackel
With some second-guessing floating around and one strange report claiming the lockout was nearly over, the NHL owners and players met Tuesday in New York City -- minus their lead negotiators -- for what some believed was a last ditch effort to revive the CBA talks and save the season. On Wednesday, the Board of Governors convened and it was expected that it would set a doomsday timetable, establishing a date after which even an abbreviated schedule would not be played.
But, for the first time in these negotiations, Tuesday's session yielded some signs of cautious optimism.
Following marathon talks on Tuesday, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman indicated on Wednesday after the BOG meeting that he and the NHL owners were "pleased with the process" but declined to say anything further.
"We're going to continue to talk up until we get a deal," Maple Leafs governor Larry Tanenbaum, one of the six owners meeting with the group of players, told Nick Cotsonika of Yahoo Sports. "That's all I'm going to say."
In a very brief joint press conference following the seven-and-a-half hours of meetings on Tuesday (video), NHLPA general counsel Steve Fehr said, "I thought we had a constructive day. We had a good dialogue. In some ways I'd say it might be the best day we've had...There's still a lot of work to do and a lot to be done, but we will be back at in tomorrow (Wednesday) morning."
And NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly added, "I think everybody is working hard. I think everybody wants to get a deal done, so I think that's encouraging. We look forward to making more progress tomorrow."
We haven't heard anything remotely like that since talks began in July.
The same group of owners and players were to reconvene Wednesday prior to the 11 AM Board meeting but postponed and now expect to continue some time after that meeting. How the Board as a whole will react to these talks, that are being conducted without either Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Don Fehr, is an open question. The Chairman of the Board, Boston's Jeremy Jacobs, was in the talks, but reports say others were responsible for what progress was made.
Bettman spoke for less than a minute after the Board meeting "out of respect for the process" and declined to answer questions. TSN's Bob McKenzie tweeted, "Negotiations between NHL-NHLPA are at such sensitive stage NHL govs weren't even given specifics from yesterday's session at today's BofG." But Columbus President of Hockey Operations John Davidson told reporters after the meeting, "We feel good about the information we got."
Very few details of what was discussed have leaked out, and we've said frequently that when we don't hear about what is going on the room, that can be a good sign, as the sides are more concerned with speaking to each other than convincing the rest of the world why the other side is at fault for the lack of progress.
In multiple tweets, McKenzie wrote early Wednesday morning, "Both sides prepared to say today was, by far, the best of the lockout but still work to be done and it's a precarious process. Both sides feel for the first time in the process the other side is prepared to deal. Hearing there were 'gives' from both sides. PIT owner Ron Burkle and new owner faces created more inviting climate for players but sense is both sides realize time is now to deal. There is cautious optimism on both sides but history (1994-95 and 2004-05) reminds us how quickly progress can be derailed. But a good day."
Jeremy Rutherford of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch tweeted, "Andy McDonald, who participated in today's CBA negotiation, says: 'It was a good day. There was progress but still lots of work to be done.'"
Sportsnet's John Shannon tweeted, "Have they made progress on a new CBA? Both sides say (tentatively) Yes. The morning session Wednesday will gauge just how much progress."
And my SI.com collegue Adrian Dater wrote for his main gig with The Denver Post, "I talked to some very high-level NHL people tonight and the unanimous sentiment was 'It looks like we’ll have a season after all....Can these guys still blow it? Possibly. I believe, from my talks, the biggest issue at hand remains the final number on the 'make whole' provision. Before today, the sides were $182 million apart on the make-whole provision. From my conversations with sources, that compromise number remains something of a sticking point, and it could still become a contentious issue. But I expect the sides will split the difference, like most other outstanding items of contention.'"
"Make whole" is the misnamed provision that would pay the players a portion of their existing contracts in addition to the expected 50-50 split of hockey related revenue. If the Board of Governors doesn't like how more they would have in cash outlays, that could derail the progress made thus far.
According to Bob Rossi in The Pittsburgh Tribune Review, Sidney Crosby and Penguins owner Ron Burkle may have played a crucial role. "Burkle and Crosby were described by participants in the five-hour talks as voices of reason," he wrote. "Their shared point of view: The NHL should not risk another round of canceled games — they’re already canceled through Dec. 14 — and the league may not recover if a season is lost to a labor dispute for the second time in eight years, the sources said."
Crosby has been the public face of the NHL coming out of the last lockout and Rossi added the Penguins captain "will not break ranks with the players’ union, but his objective over the past week has been to establish common ground among players who have lost trust in NHL ownership and management as a whole, the sources said. Over the past few weeks, Crosby, Burkle and (Mario) Lemieux have privately discussed plans to bridge the gap between players and owners. The sources said all three had grown frustrated with the lack of progress."
The second guessing that preceded the meeting had partly to do with who would be in the room for the players. It's was reported that as many as 30 players were going to New York to decide who would make up their delegation. Darren Dreger told TSN Radio 690 in Montreal on Tuesday morning that the owners really don't care how many participate. It was believed there would be six to go along with the six owners, who we discussed on Monday. So Dreger thought the NHLPA was "overthinking" this, and that as many players who wanted to go into the session should go.
As it turned out, 18 players arrived for the meeting, according to the NHLPA: Craig Adams, David Backes, Michael Cammalleri, Sidney Crosby, B.J. Crombeen, Mathieu Darche, Shane Doan, Ron Hainsey, Shawn Horcoff, Jamal Mayers, Manny Malhotra, Andy McDonald, Ryan Miller, George Parros, Brad Richards, Martin St. Louis, Jonathan Toews and Kevin Westgarth.
Dreger also reported that the players had asked the owners to include some former leading NHLers who are now on management's side: Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman, Dallas GM Joe Nieuwendyk and NHL vice president Brendan Shanahan. The union also wanted to include PA staffer Mathieu Schneider. On the surface, that seemed like a promising idea -- guys who understand each other on both sides of the table might have a better chance of getting a deal done than athletes vs. businessmen, people who have not had the same life experiences.
But the owners refused, and that's not surprising from their perspective, which is that former players don't have any "skin in the game" -- it's not their money that the sides are haggling over. The owners are going to want to represent themselves in determining how large a share of Hockey Related Revenue will go to the players.
And that leads to the fundamental problem that many on the players' side had with this meeting: the imbalance in experience between the owners and players who were in the room. One prominent Canadian labor leader with ties to the NHLPA questioned whether having this meeting at all was a good idea. Buzz Hargrove, former president of the Canadian Auto Workers, who was briefly the ombudsman of the NHLPA in 2009, told Kevin McGran of The Toronto Star that the meeting is "a mistake on the part of the union; I wouldn’t have agreed to it. They have a bargaining committee to do the bargaining, and they hired an executive director to lead it. (Don Fehr) is the guy with the experience as opposed to players who are for the most part very young and very inexperienced.”
Hargrove told McGran the owners are successful, wealthy, powerful businessmen who are “incredibly experienced at bargaining, or they wouldn’t be where they are. They clearly would have an advantage in my mind. I don’t think it’s fair or respectful to the process or players.”
While a number of media observers and even the players themselves believe that some owners are less in favor of the lockout than the reputed hardliners, Hargrove maintains that it's foolish to believe that any are "doves" despite their friendliness toward their own players, and the reputation of, for example, the Penguins' Ron Burkle, who has been honored for humanitarian work by the AFL-CIO and been chosen man of the year by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. “If they were (doves), they would have come out by now," Hargrove said. "We’re a long way into this dispute. They gave (Gary Bettman) a unanimous vote to carry out the lockout. It’s lopsided in terms of power and experience of the people who are meeting.”
Those within the NHLPA who opposed this meeting believed the league was again trying to drive a wedge between Fehr and the players and, indeed, one anonymous owner told David Ebner of The Globe and Mail that he blamed Fehr for the impasse. The owners have leveled all manner of accusations at the union's executive director, but none of it has resonated with the NHLPA's membership. Fehr personally may not have favored this meeting, or maybe he was fine with it, but he apparently continued to let the players decide among themselves the courses of action that the union takes, and talking to the owners without him or Gary Bettman in the room was the consensus on this one.
The hope remains that something will come out of this get-together that reignites the formal negotiations, although optimism was in short supply before the sides met. Whether the owners were all hardliners, as Hargrove maintained, or of different opinions, almost all indications pointed to the hawks still manning the steering wheel of this entire process, evidenced by Jeremy Jacobs and Murray Edwards remaining in the owners' delegation for Tuesday's meeting. It's possible this meeting was a concession to that group of owners who are less militant than those driving the bus, but with Jacobs and Edwards present, it looked as if no one was going to stray too far from their agenda.
As for the players, new voices continued to emerge expressing dissatisfaction with that hardline owners' agenda. The normally reserved Canucks captain Henrik Sedin told Ben Kuzma of The Vancouver Province, “I don’t know if they [owners] think they’re dealing with kids or that we’re stupid or think the fans are stupid. It’s a little mind-boggling when you see what’s coming out of their side. I want to hear a change, that they’re actually going to give us something in return for the things we’ve given them. I doubt that may happen [Tuesday], but it’s a start. It’s good to see that there are new owners coming into the meeting, but the bad thing is there are still some of the tight group that has been there since Day 1. That’s a concern.”
Of course, if you believe what Steve Burton of WBZ-TV in Boston reported on Monday night, there was nothing about which to be concerned. Burton went on the air to tell us that secret high level meetings over the weekend led to progress and the lockout could be over as soon as Tuesday or Wednesday.
Now it looks as if Burton was indeed informed of some sort of sea change that was about to take place. No one else seemed to have this information, including people who have been following the negotiations from the start and are in touch with people who are in the room. NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly denied it to SI's Sarah Kwak, telling her (as she tweeted Monday evening), "Not a single morsel of it" was true.
"Great," Kwak wrote in her tweet upon seeing the word "morsel". "And now I'm hungry."
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