NHL's offer is a start, not a finish, to negotiations

NHL's offer is a start, not a finish, to negotiations
October 17, 2012, 12:37 pm
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The buzz words were all present in the hours following the NHLs first significant offer in its months-long labor tussle with the NHLPA.

Words like "cautiously optimistic". And "a first step in the right direction".

The enthusiasm may sound tempered from the players' side, but it should be remembered that this is the league's first legitimate effort to end its lockout, which has wiped out the first weeks of the regular season. If seen in that light -- especially after the owners' first, insultingly one-sided "offer" that had no chance of being accepted by the NHLPA -- it is exactly what the players called it: A first step in the right direction.

Now comes the nitty-gritty of negotiations, but this proposal pretty much guarantees the sides will eventually find a workable middle ground. While it might not happen soon enough for the league to begin an 82-game regular-season schedule on Nov. 2, as commissioner Gary Bettman hopes, one player indicated theres a belief in the NHLPA that an 82-game schedule is still possible even if the season doesnt begin until Nov. 15, and that the NHL is prepared to extend the regular season by a few weeks to ensure a full year.

It could be that we dont have a deal in time to start the season on Nov. 2 because things would have to happen pretty quickly for that to be realistic, said a player who spoke on the condition of anonymity to CSNNE.com. Theres still some work to do here and things that need to be ironed out.

"But it appears that weve turned the corner to real negotiations, and thats a good thing.

The offer calls for a 5050 split of all Hockey Related Revenue -- in the last year of the just-expired CBA, the players received 57 percent of all HRR -- which would translate into a 12 percent pay cut across the board for the players. The salary cap would top out at 59.9 million next year. It would be a big hit for the players to take immediately, but those are the kinds of problem areas the league and the NHLPA now appear willing to address with things like salary protection and one-year adjustment exceptions for the 2012-13 season.

The players held a 90-minute NHLPA conference call late Tuesday afternoon to discuss the owners' proposal.

"It's good that we had a long conference call because it means that we actually had something to talk about, one player told CSNNE.com. It's a step in the right direction. If the league's latest offer was the first offer that we received months ago, then we'd be playing hockey right now."

Another source told Comcast SportsNet that Tuesdays proposal was the first good faith offer in the entire process, and an appropriate response from the players would be forthcoming in the next few days. Its expected the NHLPA will pore through the four-page document on Wednesday, and submit their own counterproposal during face-to-face discussions on Thursday. One player told CSNNE.com there was some very vague language in the NHLs offer that will require clarification before the union can move forward, and that will happen during a phone call on Wednesday.

But credit Bettman and the NHL for their first brilliant stroke of the CBA negotiations. There's now pressure on the NHLPA and executive director Donald Fehr to accept the 5050 offer everybody believed would be the end result of negtoations.

The next move from the NHLPA will be telling, and will need to be shrewdly constructed. The players will look like the bad guys if they cant find a way to work off the leagues offer and make something happen by the end of the next week, a timetable that would fit right into a week-long training camp and a season start at the beginning of November.

The NHLPA will likely be looking for more than the 200 million earmarked for revenue sharing, and seeking something a little more reasonable in player contract rights. Theyll also want to know how the NHL will pay the players back with deferred payments for the 12 percent theyre sacrificing in the first year of a new deal.

The one unknown factor in all this:

Is the NHL willing to negotiate its Tuesday offer, or is this another take-it-or-leave-it power move from Bettman? That will be the key in determining just how quickly the NHL regular season begins.

There was plenty of chatter on the NHLPA conference call linking the NHL talks this fall with last years NBA negotiations and thats no coincidence, given that the same group of lawyers have advised each league in both instances.

The NBA -- which locked out its players in 2011-12 -- made its first legitimate offer after roughly the same amount of time had passed (and, not coincidentally, after paycheck periods had been missed) in order for the season to begin by its target of Christmas Day.

If the NHL's goal is to begin in November and play a complete regular season, Tuesday's timing makes complete sense.

Now it's up to Bettman and Fehr to show why theyre regarded as master negotiators. The hockey leadership can only hope that things proceed as they did last year in the NBA, that the bulk of the NHL regular season is played, and that the lockout is a fleeting memory when the Red Wings and Maple Leafs tangle outdoors at the Big House in Ann Arbor, Mich., in the Winter Classic on New Year's Day.

An NHL resolution is so close that many fans, players and media can practically touch the return of hockey. But its important to remember there are miles to go before Bettman and Fehr can sleep.