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Big obstacles remain as talks resume

Gary Bettman Instead of filling the seats in The Big House for the Winter Classic, Commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners have stuck to their negotiating guns, which usually shoot down any NHLPA counter-proposals in a matter of minutes.
(Paul Sancya/AP)

By Stu Hackel

Weary and wary, the hockey world awaits as negotiators for the NHL and the NHLPA resume CBA talks for the first time since Dec. 13.

UPDATE: The sides adjourned for Monday after meeting a few hours with little substantial comment from either side. The league reviewed the union's counter-proposal and they will get back together on Tuesday. You can watch Don Fehr's remarks here and Gary Bettman's here. TSN's Aaron Ward and Darren Dreger had a bit more -- but not much -- here.

What will the owners' latest offer mean to this paralyzed professional league, which has locked out its players for 107 days, inflicted hardship on those whose incomes are dependent on games being played, and incurred justifiable ridicule and scorn from all corners?

You expect some sports commentators who never have anything good to say about hockey to jump all over this fiasco, but when Devils President Lou Lamoriello says he's "embarrassed" by this predicament, he echoes the sentiments of those who love the game as well.

Rather than the shame of a third prolonged lockout since 1994, the NHL could have been in the midst of a huge celebration, with Tuesday bringing the the grandest Winter Classic yet. The Big House in Ann Arbor, MI, would have been filled with more than 100,000 fans from two of the top hockey markets on the continent -- Detroit and Toronto -- while a huge TV audience from both sides of the border tuned in. Many -- if not most -- people expected that this game would be played, that there was no way the league could forfeit the attention or the revenue, which Pat Leonard of The New York Daily News reported has ranged from $22 million to $36 million in the past, and this year's Classic certainly would have exceeded that total. It would have been a huge achievement for the Red Wings, who had planned an extended Hockeytown Festival in Detroit.

For NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NBC, it could have been the Winter Classic that once and for all solidified the spectacle's spot in the sports landscape. Now it will resume -- if we have a season next year -- on a New Year's Day when it might conflict with the semifinal of the new college football championship playoffs. There can only be uncertainty from here on.

As with most things connected with the lockout, optimistic expectations have almost always proved useless. And still they persist, with many taking the owners' most recent proposal to be the measure that will finally awaken us from this nightmare in time to save the season. The owners have retreated from "the hill we'll die on," to recall Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly's phrase, in proposing that contract lengths now be no longer than six years instead of five (and seven if a team re-signs its own player). They also would allow a 10 percent variance on yearly contract values rather than five percent (the players last proposed 25 percent). They've restored the misnamed make-whole payments total to $300 million after saying they would return to around $211 million. They still want a 10-year CBA, with opt-outs after eight, but this new proposal, almost 300-pages worth, got some people very excited.

In fact, in a series of Sunday tweets (here, here here) Gary Lawless of The Winnipeg Free Press again helped raise expectations when relaying news from a "league source" that if a deal is done by Thursday, we not only could begin the season on Jan. 12, but it would be a 52-game schedule, which (the source was sure to include) would be worth an additional $100 million to the players.

Jeez, I'd like to think that will happen. Months of this contentious junk makes you forget how stirring the sport can be -- and just watching the exhilarating first period of the Canada-Russian World Junior Championship game early on Monday provided a bracing tonic.

But there are still good reasons not to get your hopes up and the first is the leaking of the proposal itself, which is very comprehensive. The major provisions can be read many places, including here on TSN's website. The most fruitful negotiations in every sphere of public life are done quietly and it should be clear by now to anyone who has followed this process that when you don't hear details of what's going on, when nothing leaks out before or during talks, that's when we have progress. When a proposal finds its way into the news, you can pretty much be assured that it's not really expected to be agreeable but it's been aired nonetheless to apply public and media pressure and make one of the parties look bad by rejecting it.

Here's another telltale sign, found in this Sunday TSN Insiders report by Darren Dreger and Aaron Ward, that this proposal has some problems. For one thing, Ward reports that the union has prepared a counter-proposal -- and the very phrase could make the owners cringe. They don't do counter-proposals, at least they haven't thus far. The league has always wanted the PA to negotiate off what it brings to the table -- and the response from the PA has always been to find those offers not to its liking and to present something else. That has frustrated the league and the owners haven't been inclined to even give those counter-offers much consideration, sometimes rejecting them in a matter of minutes. Will that hold true again?

And then there's what Dreger reported. He often taps into the league's perspective for his remarks, and he related here that the NHL wants the players to accept the owners' proposal as a whole, not take it apart piece by piece and choose what they want and reject what they don't. That would derail the process, he says, but if the players agree to the package, things could get done in a few days (and by saying that, Dreger raises the same expectations Lawless did on Twitter around the same time Sunday).

Equally problematic, if Dreger's report is accurate, is that the NHL continues its "take it or leave it" approach in presenting proposals. That has yet to work, and those skilled in the art of negotiation say it never does. There has to be give and take or it's not a negotiation; it's an ultimatum.

What is it about the owners' latest proposal that the players may not like? One thing is that the NHL wants to set the salary cap at $60 million per club for next season and that's going to put some players out of work and drive down salaries for others. Michael Grange of Sportsnet reports that "Clubs like Boston, Philadelphia and Vancouver have been loading up on contracts to deliver themselves a reasonable window to contend for a Stanley Cup. The result is a lot of guaranteed money on the books. If the cap comes down to $60 million, filling out a 23-man roster becomes a challenge. The Vancouver Canucks already owe $60.7 million to just 13 players in 2013-14 (figures provided by capgeek.com); Philadelphia owes $59 million to 16 players and Boston will be trying to find seven players with just $2.9 million to spend."

Another bothersome point, as Larry Brooks of The New York Post reports, is that the league will now count against the salary cap the contracts of players on one-way deals who are buried in the minors. Previously, the Wade Reddens of the world could play in the AHL and the parent club would not have their inflated contracts count against it. The league will allow a one-time compliance buyout that won't count against the cap, but it won't go into effect until 2013-14 when the new, lower cap is in place. "The risk under this scenario is that a player such as Redden targeted for a compliance buy-out — or, for example Scott Gomez in Montreal and perhaps Vincent Lecavalier at Tampa Bay (SI.com Gallery: Albatross Contracts) — might suffer an injury serious enough during the season that would render him ineligible to be bought out. Pushing all compliance buyouts to next year not only creates unnecessary risk for teams, but would also increase the number of free agents on the market while teams deal with limited cap space."

And so, Brooks writes, the PA is expected to propose that compliance buyouts be permitted before this season. He adds, "The NHL has proposed a decrease from this year’s effective $70.2 million cap to $60 million next year. The union is expected to counter with a proposed higher 2013-14 cap number, perhaps $65 million, while also seeking a cap on escrow in order to ease the transition to 50/50" split of hockey related revenue.

(Moreover, showing up on Twitter Monday -- such has here by The Hockey News' Ken Campbell -- was the hint the PA may include in their counter-proposal a provision to redefine Hockey Related Revenue on expansion fees. HRR has always excluded that revenue stream, but now the union may seek to give the players a cut of any future expansion money. One reason the PA has opposed a CBA of eight to 10 years long is they suspect a big windfall to ownership on expansion money, perhaps as much as $300 million paid to the league per new franchise. Perhaps, some believe, that would be the quid pro quo for the players agreeing to a longer term. It's hard to believe the owners would look kindly on that, but it may be a moot point: David Shoats of The Globe and Mail tweeted Monday afternoon, "Just told NHLPA never considered or even discussed asking owners for a share of future expansion or relocation money.")

Obviously, accepting the league's latest proposal as a whole could be problematic. And that's why caution is advised about the results of these latest talks. For all the hopes raised when, for example, The Ottawa Sun's Bruce Garrioch tweeted last week, "My sources say owners have privately informed Bettman cancelling the season is not an acceptable option," things have dragged on this far for a reason. This lockout, as Bruce Arthur writes in The National Post, "has been made necessary by a league that seems more interested in across-the-board savings rather than truly fixing its structural weaknesses, and by players who have been stubbornly resisting the idea, and paying for it. For all the fits and starts, the pointless side roads and the winding switchbacks, the only question is whether there will be a season. And we’re going to find out soon."

It's possible that this newest round goes nowhere, or doesn't go far enough. The owners continue to draw lines in the sand that they then erase, only to draw another. The players are going to be losers here, financially. Things won't be as good for them as they were before. It's often said that a successful negotiation is when both sides are unhappy. What remains to be seen is how unhappy the owners will be with their new larger share of the pie, which shrinks a bit with each failed ultimatum, and how long it takes before we get to the point where the players feel they've gotten enough in return to pacify their own unhappiness.

Could we be close to that point now? Or could it be this season will be lost and part of next as well before we reach that point? Former New York Times hockey columnist Joe Lapointe, in a freelance piece on the absent Winter Classic for the online Motor City news website Deadline Detroit, recalled something that former NHLPA head Bob Goodenow told him during a previous lockout: "Goodenow used to say a shutdown of a season and a half was needed to beat Bettman and the owners."

That's not very cheery, is it? Yikes.

Well, perhaps we're being far too negative. So for now, let's hope for the best, not look that far ahead but just at what comes of this latest meeting, one few believed would be needed on the last day of the calendar year. As The Toronto Sun's Lance Hornby tweeted on Sunday, "Oct. 12, we wrote Bettman, Daly, Fehrs would be dithering in Times Square when New Year's Eve ball dropped. Didn't want to be that right."

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