By Stu Hackel
The Thursday meeting between NHL owners and players was a short one, only 90 minutes, but it seems that's all that was needed. An impending stalemate in CBA negotiations (discussed here in Wednesday's post) looms with each side's position in danger of ossifying. It's hardly unanticipated; you had to know that amidst all the talk about being focused on reaching an agreement, there's long been a sense that each side would dig in its heels over some fundamental issue and those heels now seem to be sinking into the earth.
This isn't to say that the sides aren't trying to negotiate a deal at the moment. They're still talking and plan to resume on Tuesday. According to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman in his remarks after the most recent discussion, the league had tried to craft a revised position of its own -- incorporating elements of the NHLPA's "alternate proposal" that offers the owners' some concessions on player salaries -- that would be the basis for whittling down the difference between the sides. But Bettman said the NHLPA didn't have much "receptivity" to what the league devised, despite a couple of attempts to engage the union on it. Then the players presented the owners with the remaining parts of their proposal, those dealing with the NHLPA's views on contract issues: free agency, salary arbitration, contract length and the like, things the NHL wants to restrict. The owners didn't much like what they heard. "The union," Bettman said (video), "is looking for a system that has more flexibility and we're looking for a system that has less flexibility.
"The bigger point, I think, we made today goes to the fact that whether or not we are talking about the contract or system issues or we're talking about revenue sharing, it's clear that we're at a point where it's going to be very difficult to move this process along until we deal with the fundamental economic issues. And certainly as it relates to the fundamental economic issue, we are far apart, both in terms of magnitude and structure. And that's something we're trying to get a handle on."
What is that fundamental economic issue? Bettman laid it out rather plainly when later addressing questions:
"We believe that we are paying (the players) more than we should be," he said. And that comes down to defining Hockey Related Revenue and what the players' slice would be under the salary cap.
"The players have done very well under this deal," Bettman said. "The average salary has gone from a million four-fifty to two million four-fifty. I think given their druthers -- (as) they've said publicly -- they'd rather keep playing under this deal...My sense is they prefer to keep things the way they are and that kind of slows up the process."
"Everybody understands that employers would always like to pay less," countered NHLPA Executive Director Don Fehr during his remarks to the media. "That's not a surprise to anybody -- it's disappointing sometimes -- but it's not a surprise....From the players' standpoint, they want a fair agreement, they want one that is equitable, they want one that recognizes their contribution."
Bettman went on to say that in Thursday's discussion, Fehr acknowledged that things aren't going to move forward until that fundamental issue is dealt with -- which doesn't mean they'll start to agree on what the players' share of HRR should be, just that Bettman believes that question has to be answered before all else, that it's the central issue of the next CBA as he sees it, and both sides will prepare over the weekend for that discussion.
Do the players share that view? When Fehr spoke to the media afterward...
...he said, "Our belief is that -- and I think they share what I'm about to say by the way, even if we come at it from different perspectives -- is that when you tie together the core economic issues in terms of the cap numbers, when you add to that the revenue sharing issues, when you add to that the player contracting issues, we don't separate them, and we have different approaches as to what makes sense and what to tackle first. Having said that, they all have to be agreed upon or it's not going to be agreed upon. And so when we say we're going to focus on core economic issues next week, I expect that sooner or later we'll get to all of those. Exactly what's going to come up first, I don't know."
He added that the preparations he believes are in order for next week are continued discussions with his constituents, the players, "about how things look and what we might be able to do and all the rest of it. And sometimes the process is better served -- rather than by meeting and continuing the discussions -- by taking time to think and consider, to ponder, to talk to your constituents and then to come back. And the time that's going to be taken between now and then is hopefully going to be taken by both sides to do that. Whether it will be productive remains to be seen."
All of this means that if Mr. Bettman wants a resolution of the lowered salary cap issue first and has asked Mr. Fehr to ask his players if they are interested in settling next week for, lets' say, 46 percent or 43 percent or even the canard of partnership and the myth of an equal 50-50 split of HRR, Mr. Fehr will discuss it with them, starting immediately with another NHLPA regional meeting scheduled for Toronto. You can pretty much figure out what their answer will be.
Well, hockey fans, like it or not, if you're paying attention, you're getting a pretty good education about the joys collective bargaining techniques. But on Twitter around mid-day Thursday, fans felt they were getting something else -- like a royal screwing, especially after they heard of Bettman's response to one questioner who asked if the league's excellent post-lockout economic growth gave him confidence that the owners could lock out the players again. Bettman restated that he was focused on a settlement, didn't want a work stoppage and then added, "We recovered last time because we have the world's greatest fans."
Seen as disingenuous by these "greatest fans" to whom he would deny hockey through a lockout, Bettman's words prompted a good deal of Twitter outrage and calls for some sort of fan protest. We'll have to monitor that to see if anything really comes of it. As Bruce Dowbiggin of The Globe and Mail reported on Monday, there are already a few anti-lockout websites gearing up: "NoHockeyLockout.com ('Giving the Fans a voice to save our sport!') and NHLexpertpicks.com are among the sites hammering the issue. The tone is anti-NHL," he wrote.
Of course, a lockout doesn't just mean no work for the players. The hardest hit victims wouldn't be those not making tons of money as players or owners, but those who make far less working for the teams, in the arenas, and in businesses connected with NHL games. Eric Francis of The Calgary Herald reported on Thursday that Flames employees may be in line for salary cuts if the players are locked out. Earlier this month, Geoff Kirbyson of The Winnipeg Free Press wrote about the plight of businesses near the MTS Centre that would suffer if the Jets don't play this fall. There are hundreds of people connected with the TV and radio rights-holders, local and national, who are paid by the game and would not get checks. I suppose they get classified as collateral damage in all this.