By Stu Hackel
Time to cue up Marvin Gaye singing "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" and get ready for the NHL's version of The Big Chill.
That's what's in store for hockey fans as the league's most recent deadline for a new CBA came and went Thursday night and the owners swiped their latest offer to the players off the table, canceled all NHL games scheduled through the end of November, could be on the verge of also axing both the Winter Classic and the All-Star Game and, most likely, triggering a long, cold stretch in which very little or nothing will happen to end the lockout.
With the league uninterested in scheduling any talks with the NHLPA, button up your overcoats.
From Commissioner Gary Bettman's standpoint, as long as the union declines to use the owners' last offer as the basis of negotiations, there won't be any. The fact that the players presented not one but three counter-offers with terms for a split of revenue that were, for the first time, somewhat similar to those proposed by the owners has not mattered. From the NHL's perspective, the differences between the sides are far more significant than what they have in common, so the owners don't want to negotiate.
That stance was affirmed by Bettman on Wednesday while taking questions after the announcement of the Islanders' move to Brooklyn. "We said to them that we are prepared to meet if you want to discuss our offer, or you want to make a new offer," Bettman remarked. "They have no inclination on doing either, so there really is no point in meeting."
It's safe to assume that unless the players come up with an offer that looks very much like the owners', anything they propose will be dismissed by the league as quickly as the ones the NHLPA presented last week. That trio got all of about 15 minutes of consideration from Bettman and his fellow league negotiators.
So it's pretty much the owners' way or the highway and that doesn't sound much like a recipe for cooperation -- especially when, as the NHLPA's Mathieu Schneider told TSN (video) and repeated in this interview below on the NHLPA website, "There is not one thing in this deal that the NHL has offered the players that is better than the last deal that we had." In light of the record revenues that the owners enjoyed over the last seven years, the players are in no mood for a contract comprised exclusively of concessions.
The most critical issue dividing the sides remains how to split Hockey Related Revenue equally and, at the same time, ensure that all the current player contracts will be honored by the owners. It could be that these two elements are incompatible as long as the owners insist that the 50-50 split kick in immediately and not be gradually phased in, as the players desire. ESPN.com's Pierre Lebrun did a good article on this issue earlier this week, although it later came to light that the NHL would agree to be flexible on the matter only if the players agreed to everything else in the owners' offer, including givebacks on free agency, salary arbitration, entry level contracts, length of contracts and other contracting issues. That wasn't to the players liking, so the standstill resumed.
Now each side waits for the other to buckle and it's anyone's guess how long that will be and which side gives way first.
There is some sentiment that the players will fold first and that the average NHL player, the rank and file guy, will be the first to break ranks. The big stars, according to this theory, are the ones who are the driving force of the NHLPA's resistance while the lower paid and fringe guys, whose careers and finances are in greater jeopardy, are being forced to go along for the ride. Here's one blog post that expresses this notion.
And yet, when you examine the NHL's proposal that was just taken off the table, one that the union opposed, it's clear that it would have been very detrimental to non-stars as well. With the Entry Level System applying only to a player's first two years and the arbitration system not kicking in until the fifth year, no NHLer would have leverage in negotiations starting in Year 3 of a career. The expired CBA deal had the Entry Level System lasting three years with arbitration rights kicking in after Year Four. Under the now-withdrawn NHL offer, the average or fringe guys would certainly get lesser deals coming out of Entry Level than the rising stars and would have no real bargaining power at all until they hit Year Five. With the average NHL career lasting around five years, non-stars might never have a particularly good situation in their careers under that offer and the NHLPA's opposition to it was most certainly in their interests. So the idea that the average player might abandon the PA in this fight may not really reflect how these guys actually think about the lockout and their union.
Meanwhile, the owners are losing money as well, and they have been since the preseason schedule was canceled. So the pain goes both ways. Although some believe it will be the players who ultimately surrender, there doesn't seem to be too many cracks in their solidarity just now. How long that will last once the missed paychecks start piling up remains a big unknown. When Bettman says in the above video, "Things may get more difficult," he's talking about those missed paychecks and ownership's lack of enthusiasm for a quick settlement, meaning even more missed pay ahead, as well as lesser deals the owners will offer in the future.
"What can I tell you, guys unanimously feel the same way about it and are saying they've offered us nothing," Flames winger Mike Cammalleri told TSN's Jonas Siegel this week. "It just really feels like a shakedown for the players. That's kind of the feeling across the board...It's disappointing that the approach for Gary and the ownership group has been to make these hard dates and final offers and not budging and on and on. There's no real answer to why except 'We think we can lock you out and your careers are short and we can shake you down'. Not a good feeling."