By Stu Hackel
Will there be an NHL season?
The league cancelled its schedule through Jan. 14 on Thursday so the fact that this question still torments us after 96 days of the lockout is hardly surprising. But the hockey community did raise its collective bruised eyebrow on Wednesday when CBC's Elliotte Friedman asked that very question of NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly -- and only wanted to hear a "yes" or a "no" answer. No qualifications of equivocating allowed.
"Do we have a season?"
You can listen to Daly's response here or continue reading for it.
It was the most encouraging word we've heard in a couple of weeks, since Daly stood shoulder to shoulder with the NHLPA's special counsel Steve Fehr (video) and talked about how real progress was being made for the first time in the marathon collective bargaining meetings that were held earlier this month.
NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr reacted quite positively when he was informed of Daly's answer (at around 1:45 of the video below).
"Good!" Fehr said with some enthusiasm. "That's good news. I'm glad to hear that. I certainly hope he's right. Certainly hope he's right. That's the players' goal, that's what we want to try and do and hopefully we'll get back together and negotiate out the remaining issues as soon as possible."
Now, let's hold on a second.
Sure, it is quite possible that Daly's just an optimistic guy. Or it could be that his "yes" hints at what many suspect: that these spasmodic negotiations will lurch to another resumption and culminate at the last possible moment before the season is lost, with the final cards being thrown on the table and an agreement forged.
But it's just as possible that when "yes" or "no" were the only options that Friedman gave, how in the world could a too accommodating Daly ever have answered in the negative? "What might be the potential consequences of that?," the lawyer in the Deputy Commissioner had to wonder, concerned that uttering "no" could come back to haunt him. Should the NHL ever have to demonstrate in court that it has bargained in good faith -- and the league has already filed a lawsuit and a National Labor Relations Board charge against the NHLPA -- an audio file floating around with one of the league's negotiators saying that he didn't believe there would be a season before it was cancelled would be slightly troublesome.
Probably more revealing was Daly's response earlier the same day to a question posed over Toronto radio FAN 590 (audio) on whether the NHLPA's current vote to authorize the union's executives to disclaim interest. The vote will conclude on Thursday and is expected to grant that authority to the leadership. Daly had said a few times previously that if the union ever took that step, it would kill the chance of a season. This time he dodged a direct answer but admited that if a notice of disinterest were to comes about, "I don't think it would be anything positive to the process and certainly could prolong any resolution, although I say that and we sit here at the end of December and we don't have a deal, so it is what it is."
He continued not speaking the language of "Yes," when he said that there remains "a lot of open issues and what we're prepared to do is shut down the industry over doing a deal that is not right for our owners." Daly's list of those open issues is larger and the gap between the sides is more daunting than how he says the NHLPA portrays them. That list includes the salary cap and money outside the system that he says keeps the players' share of hockey related revenue at 57 percent, not the even split that is the league's goal in a new agreement.
"Until we settle all the financial issues," Daly says, "to suggest we have a 50-50 split is wrong; it's just not accurate....To suggest, as they have, that we're almost on top of each other I think would be overstating it probably to the extreme."
As we've noted before, Don Fehr actually said, "We are close, if not on top of each other, on most of the major issues," which is not exactly the same thing as what Daly suggests.
Many have pointed out how disagreement permeates these negotiations and how much the rhetoric can obscure the truth. For example, Fehr and the players have frequently said that the owners have given them nothing in these talks that is better than what they had in the previous agreement. Nothing? In his Fan 590 segment, Daly rattled off a long list of what has been agreed to so far, things he believes are improvements that the players wanted out of these talks: a defined benefit pension plan; increased revenue sharing (including an oversight committee on which the players will be represented); introduction of a neutral third party in matters of player discipline for both on-ice and off-ice matters; flexibility in the cap system that allows for money to be part of trades; elimination of re-entry waivers; salary cap exceptions in emergency roster situations and a performance bonus cushion; more waiver obligations for clubs so players can be picked up and earn NHL salaries rather than getting shuttled back and forth to the minors; more restrictions on buyouts than the old system had; built in flexibility on no-move and no-trade clauses that expand their availability to players; reformatting training camp to give players more days off; standardized facilities for visiting teams; and stronger health and safety standards.
It's an impressive tally, and the players should recognize it and embrace it, not ignore or deny it. They were the ones who negotiated it, demonstrating that progress can be made when the NHL and NHLPA actually talk, which they haven't done enough.
Much of that list was agreed to over the summer. They were called the "secondary issues," as you may recall, and after a while, the league didn't want to talk about them any more. The NHL was unwilling to negotiate unless the parties first tackled what it called the "core economics," the areas that deal with the split of HRR and the actual dollars. When it comes to those matters, however, Fehr and the players seem to be correct: There is nothing better for them in the core economics than the last CBA, which is disconcerting after record revenues and franchise values.
Asked on Fan 590 whether there was a date after which the season could not go forward, Daly replied with dismay in his voice that while nothing had been circled on the calendar, he felt that games would have to start some time in mid-January. Hearing that certainly tempers the hope in the "yes" he said to Elliotte Friedman.
It's hard to be as optimistic when there are no talks scheduled and there apparently won't be as long as the NHL sees no reason to talk as long as the NHLPA won't bend on outstanding issues like the five-year limit on player contracts, a 10-year term for the next CBA, and various transition issues. When Don Fehr speaks later in the video above about the union's willingness to resume negotiations without any preconditions, that's what he's referring to: the league's disinclination to talk at all unless the players accept the owners' take-it-or-leave-it portions of what has most recently been on the table.
Sadly, this is the NHL vs. NHLPA we're talking about, an Orwellian if not completely nonsensical universe where words mean different things than we think they do. Good can mean bad, right can be wrong, and up can be down. And saying yes can mean no.
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