NHLPA strategy may be behind Commissioner Gary Bettman's seeming impatience with the progress of CBA talks. (Jason DeCrow/AP)
By Stu Hackel
Where are we after a month of collective bargaining talks between the NHL's owners and players? No closer to learning whether the season will start on Oct. 11, but this week's turn of the calendar page is a good time to sharpen our focus on what we do know.
We know the owners have a proposal on the table that was presented first as an outline and then more fully, and that the NHLPA has yet to make a comprehensive reply. That proposal called for major salary concessions from the players, who came into the talks determined not to give up more after having surrendered so much in the wake of the lockout that cost them and everyone else the 2004-05 season. And -- amidst much talk that revenue sharing among the clubs, of which the NHL engages in very little compared to other major professional leagues, must be increased in the next CBA -- the owners this week presented the players with that component of their proposal.
We can't begin to know the answer to the big question of when the 2012-13 season will start at least until we hear the NHLPA's counter-proposal. More on that shortly. But this week we at least started to get confirmation of what almost everyone suspected: that the players are not in agreement with some of what the owners have proposed as their central economic position. Coming out of the meetings on Tuesday, NHLPA Executive Director Don Fehr made these remarks to the assembled media...
...and they included his statement that, "We had a discussion about how the players react to the proposals that would modify the terms under which players negotiate individual contracts, things like 10-year unrestricted free agency, elimination of salary arbitration, limitation on contract length and so on. And we talked about that for a while and it will come as no surprise the players are not enamored with those kind of changes."
Where the discussion went from there remained unsaid. When they submit their own proposal, the players will almost certainly maintain that instead of lowering the salary cap, the way to help troubled franchises is through greater revenue sharing among the teams. On Wednesday, we got a preview of what the players think of the owners' proposed revenue sharing plan when the NHLPA's Mathieu Schneider addressed reporters after the talks.
"We got a little more background on what they're proposing," he said, "and it's not a significant change from the system that's in place now. One thing they've said is they're happy with the way the revenue sharing has worked for them in this agreement."
The NHLPA surely isn't happy with the minimal amount of help that teams provide to struggling franchises when the players are being asked to sacrifice even more of their own wages to help those clubs. So we can expect an alternate view of revenue sharing to be part of the union's counter-proposal. (Another aspect of the current CBA that the players may want to modify is the escrow system, and David Shoalts of The Globe and Mail had more on that in Thursday's paper.)
It should be noted from Schneider's remarks that despite the gathering clouds over the essential dollars-and-cents issues of player contracts, there continues to be productive discussion on a variety of subjects. That good news should not be minimized or overlooked. Even if the two sides start to bog down on the core economic matters, which may be an inevitability, progress has been made in areas that everyone considers to be important, especially issues related to player safety. So in some areas, the talks reveal that there is trust and a developing working relationship that may be less evident on the money side.
However, it's that money side of the talks that will float or sink the coming season, or at least its start. When Kevin Westgarth of the Kings addressed reporters after Wednesday's session...
....he remarked that the scars of the last lockout haven't entirely healed and some wariness remains, saying, “Generally, like the fans, we are concerned about – I think everyone has a little post-traumatic stress from last time. It is something (where) they locked us out last time and it’s foreseeable for them to lock us out again. So guys obviously want to play, but obviously we need to get the right deals together as well.”
Just when the NHLPA will present its view of what the CBA should look like remains unknown despite Fehr's projection last week that it could do so very soon. You have to wonder how soon it can be when the players have asked the owners to hand over independently audited financial statements and, after the NHL deposited thousands of pages worth earlier this week, Schneider characterized them as "the first drop" of what the PA requested.
That's going to be a lot to data to process, and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman questioned the necessity of it. “The union has for quite some time had some substantial financial information,” he said on Tuesday. “They have given us recently some additional financial-information and other-information requests, most of which we don’t understand the relevance to, but we have been producing, and I believe (Monday) night we gave them the first installment, which was 76,000 pages of information pursuant to their request.”
Bettman's words were interpreted by some as a sign of impatience, and sources have indicated that the league is worried that the leadership of the NHLPA is dragging out this stage of the negotiations to create more pressure as the Sept. 15 expiration of the current CBA nears. Westgarth is right. No one wants a lockout, but there is concern in some quarters that the PA is trying to turn up the heat with requests that the owners' side feels are unnecessary.
Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly on Thursday acknowledged there is more detailed information in the numbers the NHL turned over this week, but added, "I think the point is that, with respect to the general financial condition of the clubs, it’s something they’ve had access to and known about for a long time. And in fact, if this was a real concern for the Players Association, we would have expected to get a request earlier than July 13.”
"Time-wise, Daly is correct," commented Pat Leonard while blogging for The New York Daily News. "A request for information of this magnitude this close to a Sept. 15 deadline essentially guaranteed these negotiations would slip past that date. On the other hand, if he’s wondering why the NHLPA made their request on July 13, it’s because that’s the day the NHL laid its brazen, non-starter proposal on the table that contained demands the league and owners had to know were as far as possible from the players’ preferences."
And that proposal was based on cutting the players' share of HRR and making that pool even more shallow by re-definining what constitutes HRR. So the players responded by asking for a clearer picture of those revenues, which teams have trouble and which teams don't.
What all this shows is how thorough the NHLPA has become under Don Fehr's leadership. No one is more experienced in representing players and this group won't easily swallow any claims that the owners make. The owners shouldn't take Fehr's PA lightly, either.
Both Schneider and Westgarth defended the NHLPA's request for more information in their comments embedded above.
“The information that we’re getting now is independently audited statements,” Schneider said, making a distinction between the data the league turned over earlier and what it is now producing. "They’re asking for huge concessions, and $450 million a year back from the players. We certainly feel that the audited statements are very important to what will eventually be our alternate proposal.”
"We all want to do this as quickly as possible," Westgarth said. “We all have their proposal and you guys have seen it as well as I. There are huge concessions and the information we requested, we’re gonna have to go through it to see what they’re saying, etc. and come up with our own proposal. We need to have all the information for us to give back 24 percent of our salaries. If your boss came to you and said that, then I don’t think you’d do it without asking to see his books and if what he's telling you is he's losing money. So to me, it's not unreasonable.”
It's not. The owners claim that there are systematic problems with the current CBA despite record revenues league-wide, saying that clubs are losing money and, because the problems are with the system, no remedy exists that could be applied to just those few clubs that are doing badly. So independent audits of all the teams, including financial data that shows non-hockey related revenue, will reveal the true picture to the players.
Asked how long it's going to take to digest all this material, Schneider smiled and replied, "I've never actually gone through 76,000 pages...," which prompted laughter from the reporters. He may not have been the right guy to ask, but the PA has staff and outside help combing those documents and whatever may follow them.
Still, the first open signs of anxiety have emerged in these talks. You can bet there will be more nervous fellas on both sides as things plunge ahead.
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