Once again, little progress made in NHL negotiations

Once again, little progress made in NHL negotiations
October 10, 2012, 9:40 pm
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The NHL and NHLPA finally continued formal negotiations in New York City Wednesday, but an hour-long discussion among the four power players in the talks Gary Bettman, Bill Daly, Donald Fehr and Steve Fehr yielded little progress.

The sides are supposed to engage in a full day of talks on Thursday, but once again they wont be hitting on the core economic issues of the lockout. Instead theyll continue discussing things like player safety, ice surfaces, and which side is responsible for picking up the tab for additional trainers placed on each teams medical staff.

In other words, the kinds of things that wont come close to getting a new deal done.

As long as the NHL and NHLPA clash over the basics of economic outlay for the 2011-12 season, all negotiations are merely perpetual laps around a track. According to multiple sources with knowledge of the proceedings, the NHL has essentially said theres no reason to speak about core economic issues until the players are ready to absorb pay cuts for next season.

That means the players would have to agree to less than the 1.87 billion slice of the Hockey Related Revenue pie they earned last year, and also means the salary cap ceiling would drop across the league.

The message continues to be that theres nothing to talk about until the players are willing to give back from their contracts, said one source with knowledge of the proceedings. Until it changes its difficult to see how there could be a deal, and there isnt going to be any NHL.

The NHLPA is refusing to budge off the 1.87 billion figure earned by the players last season and its not difficult to see why. How would Fehr explain to his players they need to take an 18-20 percent cut in salary when the 30 NHL owners are swimming in 3.3 billion of hockey revenue earned last season?

Meanwhile the NHL has cancelled the first 14 days of the regular season already, and that amounts to 6.8 percent of a player's annual salary. Two more 14-day cancellations and the owners will have their 20 percent worth of salary cuts. Even at that, theres a pretty good chance the league could still get in a 70-plus game schedule starting in November if there was a sudden settlement.

Clearly the NHL owners put up the money for the business and should reap the profits since they assume all of the risk. Its difficult to argue that point. But the Board of Governors is going to need to make the first move if a middle ground is to be found.

The NHL started the negotiations by submitting an initial proposal that was punitive at best and draconian at worst, in both sharing revenues and restricting player contract rights.

The NHLPA made a pair of proposals following the leagues first "offer", with a fair amount of thought and compromise built into the proposals. The NHL responded to the unions efforts with what it called a meaningful counteroffer less than 24 hours later, but it was one that barely budged from its first proposal.

It probably made Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs nod approvingly, but it did nothing to make the players feel like this was a good-faith negotiation.

Give the NHL credit because they did the savvy PR thing and sent out a token offer that allowed them to say they put in the final offer on the table, said the same source. But there was very little movement in that second offer, and really very little effort to try and get a deal done.

So now the sides are essentially ignoring the most important gulf between them and are focusing on little details in the hopes that the momentum of agreement on minor points will carry over into the bigger issues.

Perhaps the NHLPA has some willingness to create an escrow account that will link some of its revenue share into continued growth of the league. But Fehr isnt going to show those cards while Bettman is sitting on a straight flush hand with the most cloying poker face in North America.

In simple terms: It appears the NHL is standing pat and waiting to see what concessions it can get from the players (more years until free agency, escrow or salary rollback, the abolition of arbitration etc.), while the NHLPA is hanging together waiting for a big escrow check from last season. That escrow will tide the players over and help them pay their bills in the short term.

It all continues to point toward little to no progress on a new deal until the calendar hits November. At that point the NHL owners making money in the current system will want to start playing games, and the players will be hard-pressed to sustain their current lifestyles without NHL-sized paychecks.

Many people look at Europe as a threat to the NHL if players enjoy their time overseas, but the reality is most players are banking next-to-nothing in salary after paying hefty insurance costs on their NHL contracts. Shawn Thornton, for example, cant find work in Europe because hed have to pay thousands of dollars out of his own pocket to play due to high insurance rates.

What if there is no serious middle ground reached by November?

Then the NHL will begin making noise about cancelling the entire season and perhaps threaten to carry things over into next year, as well. The NHLPA will call for a end to the salary cap -- which it hates, but which the owners claim is the foundation for the league's economic survival -- and that will complicate negotiations ten-fold.

There is still hope because the negotiations havent turned into a staring contest for three months, like they did in 2004-05. But if those two doomsday hammers get brought to the bargaining table, then the NHL is in deep, deep trouble.