Haggerty: NHL, NHLPA need encore to optimistic weekend

Haggerty: NHL, NHLPA need encore to optimistic weekend
November 5, 2012, 6:25 am
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There appears to be a wide-held notion the NHL owners are about to pack up their hockey nicknacks and call it a season because their Winter Classic cash cow has now been slaughtered.

On its face that might hold some logic with a National Hockey League that wont be enjoying the benefit of the doubt on collective bargaining anytime soon. But its actually had quite the opposite effect.

The NHL used the long-range marketing, advertising and planning needs required for a logistically imposing event like the Winter Classic as an excuse to whack the Jan. 1 outdoor hockey game, but its not nearly that simple. The league could have pushed things back until the Nov. 15-20 range before truly being forced to cancel the New Years Day game. But that wasn't the plan in the Bob Batterman "How to run a lockout" playbook.

Instead the 30 Lords of the Boards used the centerpiece event as a leverage point in CBA negotiations with the NHLPA, and erased the game before the players could wield it as a negotiating hammer against the owners.

Interestingly enough the cancellation of the Winter Classic opened things up for both sides to have open, frank discussions about a wide range of topics on Saturday night. Bill Daly and Steve Fehr, the No.2 in command for the NHL and NHLPA respectively, met at an undisclosed location for a wide-ranging conversation, and according to one source met continuously for 13 hours until long after midnight had passed on Sunday morning.

Thats by far the longest face-to-face meeting thats taken place during this CBA negotiation and indicates that a number of different subjects and concepts were broached in much greater detail. In other words two sides probably had to agree on a few things if they were chewing the fat for 13 hours.

That means inclusion of the make whole provision so important to players that want to be paid to the letter of their current contracts, and that means a drop to a 5050 split in Hockey Related Revenue between the owners and players. The middle ground on those two doesn't seem all that difficult to attain given where the players and owners currently stand, and it doesn't figure to be a very gnarly negotiation once the two sides begin trusting each other even a little bit.

The players know the two sides are slowly crawling closer to an agreement, and pushed their union leadership to get back into the negotiating room after an NHLPA conference call to action last weekend. Thats the kind of ripple of concern that can flow through the NHLPA rank and file when the NHL blows up their most beloved midseason event.

The Winter Classic cancellation left the players with the belief that the entire season could be cancelled in December, and that Gary Bettman was just crazy enough to do it again for the second time in eight years. So it appears that strategy might just have worked for the league.

Interestngly enough, however, the NHL is enacting one of several contingency plans for a shortened season, and looks poised for a 64-game shortened regular season set to begin on Dec. 1. The expectation is that a shortened schedule would also include a reduced travel schedule where Eastern and Western Conference teams dont play any non-conference opponents in the 2012-13 regular season.

That's a blow to some Western Conference teams that enjoy some of their largest crowds when the Bruins, Canadiens, Maple Leafs, Flyers and Rangers come to town, but that's also the reality of a shortened season.

Stay seated for the next part.

There are even some wild whispers in the hockey world that some kind of Winter Classic could be reinstated after the fact once a CBA is completed. It might not be the Red WingsMaple Leafs game on the University of Michigan campus that was supposed to take place on Jan. 1, but could instead pit a pair of popular American teams to be announced in an outdoor event cobbled together in the month plus leading up to the Jan. 1 date.

Think about it: the NHL and NHLPA would be given credit for both saving the regular season and finding a way to save the Winter Classic if they can utilize Saturdays gathering momentum to broker a deal. That's a nice little reward for a union and league that have been behaving pretty badly toward each other since the LA Kings hoisted the Cup.

Much of the current bad mojo and harsh words directed at the NHL will be long forgotten if the NHL can still produce a 60 plus game regular season, a suitable Winter Classic and a full Stanley Cup postseason that manages to resolve before July. A long conversation between Daly and Fehr on Saturday night is a nice start to those things becoming reality, but it now needs to be matched by a pair of adversarial groups intent on closing a deal.

The NHL will need to bring Gary Bettman, Bruins owner Jerry Jacobs and some of his hawk brethren willingly into the mix, and the Fehr brothers will have to find a deal that over 700 disparate NHLPA members can agree on.

Neither is an easy task, but at least theres some traction in the talks for the first time in weeks. Daly and Fehr have built the groundwork for this weeks discussions and theyll expand things with another face-to-face negotiation session on Tuesday in New York City. That's one of the few known details and that's a very good thing.

One of the really encouraging signs of negotiations over the last few days is that very little information has leaked out from either side of the aisle. That's usually when one knows things have gotten serious in the CBA negotiations.

Instead both the NHL and NHLPA finally appear intent on making a deal rather than winning the PR war, and that means a new CBA should be in the offing within the next few weeks provided things spin forward.

That seemed almost impossible 72 hours ago, but dont ever underestimate two negotiating parties that are finally seeing the light. There was optimism for the first time in weeks after the Saturday's late night DalyFehr meeting, and theres nobody but the NHL and NHLPA to blame if they cant somehow build on all of it now.