Fragile talks, optimistic reports and a tale of two sweaters
By Stu Hackel
NHL and NHLPA negotiators went at it again as the lockout hit 88 fun-filled days. Federal mediators have returned to the process as well, and that can't be a bad thing as long as both parties really want to reach a deal. If one does not, or insists there is no room for compromise, all the king's men won't be able to put a CBA together.
UPDATE: Wednesday's meeting lasted six-and-a-half hours and the sides were never in the same room. Bill Daly reported afterward that there was really nothing to report, no movement, and the NHLPA would continue to meet with the mediator into the evening and the mediator would get back to the league after that. Here's the TSN report and their video of Daly's brief remarks to the press, after which he took no questions. Don Fehr told reporters there was no change in the owners' stance of last week. Here's video of his brief remarks. There are some indications that the owners' side might restore the offer it took off the table last week, although the proposal would be non-negotiable, but it was not back on the table as of Wednesday evening.
No owners were present at Wednesday's session, only league staff and lawyers. Their NHLPA counterparts were there, along with a group of players. The location was supposed to remain undisclosed, but the two sides didn't do a much better job of keeping it a secret than they did the last time they tried to hold hush-hush talks. Multiple tweets say the session is in New Jersey. The last time they tried a news blackout, all it took to bust the scheme was one guy -- Pat Leonard of The New York Daily News -- to camp out in front of the NHL offices and tail the league's delegation on foot for a few blocks to the offices of their consulting attorneys at Proskauer Rose. This time, did someone flag down a taxi and yell, "Follow that car!" If so, chalk it up to more good reporting and bad subterfuge.
Of course, the less we hear about this round of talks, the better. We all know by now that when one of the negotiators conducts a press conference, it's most often because he wants to tell the world that the other side is standing in the way of a settlement.
And when we see or hear someone in the media quoting "a source" who reveals what has gone on at the bargaining table, it's almost certain that the source has an agenda that he'd like his surrogate to publicize for him -- and you had to laugh on Tuesday afternoon if you heard Pierre McGuire on "Melnick in the Afternoon" over TSN Radio 690 in Montreal when he said sources from both the owners' and the players' sides had told him that if the other party continued to act as disrespectfully in Wednesday's session as it did last week, they would walk out of the talks. Can't you just see it: "We're leaving!" "No, you can't leave. We're leaving first!"
Imparting "inside" info to surrogates has become commonplace. Leaking has been so epidemic that we don't need mediators as much as urologists. You'd hope they'd respect the process, but these rampant leakers may expose how committed some negotiators actually are to making a deal. Well, the leaks from the current talks have already begun: For example, Sportsnet's Mark Spector, who is thousands of miles away from New Jersey, tweeted Wednesday afternoon, "Mediator has met mostly with union thus far. Expected to spend time this aft with league. Sides have broken for lunch."
Another thing from "the less we hear, the better" category: We've had so many false alarms over the last few months -- many generated and/or spread by the media (myself included) -- and none were worth the attention they received. There have been countless tall tales ranging from "This is the week something has to get done or we're doomed," to "this latest proposal will really get the talks going on the way to an agreement." The best (or worst) was last Monday's claim by Boston WBZ-TV reporter Steve Burton that the lockout was nearly over and might even end in the next day or two. All these claims have accomplished has been to either lift or dash our hopes, and you start to think that someone is doing a masterful job of coming up with little fibs to consciously heighten everyone's anxiety.
The cycle has started once again with talk that the players are coming back from Europe and teams are quietly telling staffers to gear up for a season. Yes, players are returning from Europe -- because many of the leagues over there have begun their annual December break for the holidays and no games are scheduled. As for staffers being told to get ready, well, perhaps they are, but there's still no indication that we are on the verge of an agreement.
The two sides seem close in many respects, or at least closer than they've ever been, despite the wretched way in which these talks have proceeded. There's once again a sense of optimism in hockey circles. TSN's Gord Miller tweeted from Alberta, where Team Canada's World Junior Team is preparing for the IIHF Under-20 Championships, "The consensus among NHL management types/agents here this morning is that there will definitely be a resolution to the lockout, and soon." The Kings Kevin Westgarth, who has been in many negotiating sessions, but not today's told James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail, "We feel at least that we’re within shouting distance of a deal and we’ll be able to get back on the ice." Lots of media commentators, too (like Nick Cotsonika of Yahoo), believe they see how the gaps between the owners and players can be closed, and they're not wrong.
But we've been optimistic before, haven't we? One thing that the glass-half-full folks may be missing is how willing one or both sides still may be to actually filling it. Suspicion continues that the owners' desire to damage the union is one of their priorities (and Andrew Gross of The Bergen Record has some thoughts on that here.) Plus, even though the "moderates" among ownership wanted talks to resume (as ESPN's Pierre Lebrun reported Tuesday) there's no indication that the hardline stance the league took when it removed its latest proposal from the table has changed and they've put it back in play. If the offer is back, there's been no clue that the owners are willing to go further in closing the gap -- other than the fact that every time they say "Final offer," it's not. We'll find out if limiting contracts to five years is really a hill the owners -- and the season -- will die on.
Similarly, voices among the players have restated during the last few days that they have already given enough and it is time for the owners to start making a concession or two. Theoretically, that's the mediator's job, to get the sides together, although the league reportedly still isn't thrilled that a third party is involved here.
On top of that, there are still the outstanding subjects -- the transition issues -- that Don Fehr said on Saturday have yet to be addressed, and each unaddressed issue gives someone another chance to hold up progress. These transition issues include some delicate matters, such as how a bought-out contract negotiated under the old CBA, or someone with a brand new 13-year deal, fits into a new system under which the players' share of HRR is reduced and the maximum length of contracts can only be, let's say, eight years -- or five, if the owners get their way. (Larry Brooks of The New York Post had some thoughts on buyouts here.)
That's a subject that Bob McKenzie discussed today on TSN 690's "Morning Show" when he said, "Everybody can see there's a deal to be made. I don't think the differences at this point are so ridiculously great. They're not close-close. I think as we alluded to before, for Don Fehr to say 'We're so close to each other as to be on top of each other' [actually Fehr didn't say that; he said "We are close, if not on top of each other, on most of the major issues." -- SH] and then on Saturday he says, 'Well, we haven't even discussed transition' -- and transition for the PA means talk about significant amounts of money outside of the system and Don Fehr had said, well 'We'd agree on money.' Well, we haven't really agreed on money because transition is money and we haven't spoken transition. And the NHL is pretty adamant that they are not gong to allow for transition, that that's what the $300 million 'Make whole' was for, to transition from 57 to 50 percent and we don't need compliance buyouts, we're not going to have compliance buyouts. We're not going to put in a cap on escrow. So all the details that aren't necessarily identified with a specific dollar amount, the NHL doesn't want to discuss them. And if they do, they're going to alter the $300 million. So it's not as close as it looks. But it's still not as far as to suggest we should lose an entire season on it."
The players may dispute what the misnamed "Make whole" provision is for, but therein lies what might be the next stumbling block: the transition issues -- the next deadly hill in these fitful discussions. McKenzie thinks the process needs a stated deadline to get everyone to put their true best offer forward, a date after which there will be no season. If this current round of talks doesn't wrap things up -- and you'd be wise to think it may not -- that date could be announced by the league fairly soon.
So this could drag on for a while, not just on Wednesday but beyond, and maybe for a few more weeks. To help you pass the time, here's one of my favorites: the Canadian Film Board's award-winning animated version of Roch Carrier's great short story, The Hockey Sweater.
And here's an updated 21st Century version from the CBC program This Hour Has 22 minutes.
Let's hope things go well at the meeting over on the Jersey side. Don't be terribly surprised if they don't.
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