NHL labor negotiations reach a critical point

NHL labor negotiations reach a critical point
October 16, 2012, 1:21 pm
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Things better start getting serious in the NHL labor negotiations, and quickly, or the entire regular season will be in jeopardy.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly will meet today in Toronto at the NHLPA offices with Donald and Steve Fehr, the directors of the union, and the expectation is that both sides are prepared to discuss the core economic issues at the heart of their significant disagreement.

Thats a change from what's transpired since the lockout began. What talks have been held have focused on issues like ice-surface conditions, player safety, and the high cost of additional training staff for each of the 30 NHL clubs. In other words, the two sides have been avoiding the 500-pound gorilla in the room thats been jumping up and down for months.

At least one side, and perhaps both, are ready to bring new offers to the table and finally start actual negotiations on the issue that spurred the lockout. It may end the mother of all staring contests, which has wiped out the entire preseason and the first two weeks of the regular-season schedule.

This week represents the last-ditch effort to find common ground before things really get bad, and we find out what kind of kamikaze mission the NHL is on after missing the 2004-05 season to labor issues.

The expectation is that the league will cancel up to a month of games if things dont radically improve during this next round of discussions. That would wipe out two paycheck periods up to Nov. 22 (though it would leave the nationally televised Black Friday game between the Bruins and Rangers on Nov. 23 untouched for the time being).

If that happens, the players will have lost roughly 20 percent of their salaries for 2012-13. That may harden positions on the NHLPA side, since the players felt all along that the owners -- feeling there'd be a work stoppage that would result in a new collective bargaining agreement with player givebacks -- signed a slew of contracts for more than a billion dollars this summer without any intention of paying the full freight.

Still, losing 20 percent of salary is certainly more palatable than losing 100 percent if the entire season is cancelled and, according to sources with knowledge on both sides, the feeling is that if the dispute drags on into November, the NHL will cancel the entire season.

At some point logic has to factor in, since the players dont have many other options. The salaries in Europe that many are collecting as they play there during the lockout are small to begin with, and most of it is eaten up by the high cost of insurance to protect them in case of injury. The only league close to approaching the NHL in pay scale is the KHL, but its long plane trips and less-than-ideal setting don't make it an attractive destination.

(There have even been reports of NHL players unable to get their own equipment delivered to them in the KHL because their suppliers have been harassed by Eastern European companies. That kind of thing will get old very quickly for players like Zdeno Chara and Henrik Zetterberg, who are used to the first-class, five-star experience guaranteed everywhere they go in the NHL.)

What's especially worrisome is that the NHL is now focused at least partially on winning the public-relations battle. It has gone so far as to hire the same consulting firm used by the Republican Party to turn the PR tide against the players.

Whats escaping the NHL and to a lesser degree the NHLPA is that the ticket-purchasing public doesnt care which side is right. Theres a limit to Joe Six Packs empathy for millionaire players and billionaire owners when the NHL isnt playing games, and its being reached.

Those intimate with the NHLPA line of thinking freely admit that a deal that slowly staggers their percentage of Hockey Related Revenue down from its current 57 percent figure would work. The players know its eventually going to be a 5050 proposition, and a seven-year deal that goes something like 53-52-51-50-50-50-50 for the players would be approved with very little fight from the NHLPAs side.

So far the NHL hasn't budged from its demand for a drastic drop, right off the bat, that would cut the players share by 10-20 percent immediately.

That represents 300-700 million in very real money cuts for players in a league thats broken revenue records in each of the last five seasons. It's a giant slice of the pie, and the players wont give it up all at once.

It shouldnt take a PR consulting firm to come up with a clever marketing campaign for the NHL during the lockout. Its very simple:

Seek a fair compromise rather than wield a sledgehammer of greed. End the lockout. Protect the season, the Winter Classic, the HBO 247 series and Stanley Cup playoffs.

The fans dont care which side is right. They just want their NHL back, and they want it back now.

The sooner the NHL grasps that simple truth, the better it will be for everybody involved.