It took 32 days for the NHLPA to make a counterproposal to the NHL’s July 13 proposal.
That occurred Tuesday, and it took the league less than a day to analyze it, understand it and dislike it. That was the message delivered during an hour-long meeting with the union on Wednesday – a day that ended with news scrums with each side’s head honcho that did nothing but douse any semblance of optimism from the day before.
Make no mistake: a second NHL lockout in eight years is a very real possibility.
Both NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Don Fehr made it very clear there is a “wide gap” between two sides that see the world very differently.
“There’s a pretty substantial monetary gulf, … and when you start with the proposal that the owners made, how could there be otherwise?” Fehr said. “I mean, consider what the proposal was. It is ‘Let’s move salaries back to where they were before the lockout started, back the last time.’ That’s basically what it was.
“‘We had a 24 percent reduction last time, let’s have another one.’ That was the proposal. That’s what creates the gulf.”
A hard cap remains in the union’s counterproposal, but that’s about the only thing the league likes. The league is not fond of the relatively small reduction in the revenue pie the players are willing to take over a three-year period (roughly $465 million total compared to $450 million a year the owners want, said Fehr; or in Year 1, a $69 million salary-cap ceiling proposed by the players compared to a $55.3 million ceiling from the owners), the league’s not fond that so far the union is not willing to modify the contractual system (term limits, arbitration, free agency age), the league isn’t fond of the (what Fehr called) “significant, expanded, more aggressive and more targeted revenue sharing” ($250 million a year in the player proposal, $190 million in the owner proposal) and the league will definitely not go with an agreement that reverts back to the current collective bargaining agreement in four years.
“It wasn’t particularly responsive to our proposal, and I think it’s fair to say that we value the proposal and what it means in terms of its economics differently than the players’ association does,” Bettman said. “I think there still are a number of issues where we’re looking at the world differently. I’m not sure that there’s yet been a recognition of the economics in our world, and I mean the greater world and the sports industry, taking into account what recently happened with the NFL and the NBA.
“So there’s still a wide gap between us with not much time to go. … The sides are still apart – far apart.”
Of course, Bettman is referring to the lockouts that occurred in the NFL and NBA over the past year. I think and most think that the league would eventually like to split revenues between the players and owners at 50-50 (not reflected in the ownership proposal but I think designed to negotiate to an eventual 50-50 split).
Said Bettman: “Players in other industries and other sports in the last year have recognized the importance and the need to make adjustments. We’re hoping that ultimately the union here will be in a position to focus on things the same way.”
Responded Fehr, the former Major League Baseball Players’ Association chief: “The glaring omission, of course, is baseball. Baseball has no cap, it has very substantial revenue sharing and it has no labor strife, and it hasn’t had a hint of any for a decade-and-a-half. Pretty different than hockey and it’s pretty different than football and pretty different than basketball.”
Fehr intimated that the NHL is following the NBA and NFL design by using the threat of a lockout to win the concessions it wants: “The players understand … what the eventualities are here. How could they not given what happened in this sport the last time and what happened in basketball and football? It looks pretty much like there’s a playbook out there that people are following.
“Hopefully, that’s not the case, but so far there aren’t very many differences. Players understand that and if those eventualities arise the players will know what to do. Hopefully they won’t.”
He added later, “We have been advising the players to prepare for a couple years for a worst-case analysis. You always do. You hope for the best but prepare for the worst.”
It has been reported that Fehr has already met with Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League about having a series of Russia All-Star vs. “World” All-Star exhibitions in Canada if there is a lockout.
Face-to-face talks between these two combatants will be delayed until next Wednesday because Fehr has to travel to Chicago, Kelowna and Toronto to “brief the membership,” something that was clear to me by watching the scrums on the Internet frustrates Bettman, who wants to continue pounding at the process. Fehr did say he would continue to talk to Bettman on a regular basis by phone and that everybody doesn’t need to be in the room to continue face-to-face talks.
“We’ll meet whenever the union is ready, willing and able,” Bettman said.
Considering this process started June 4 and bargaining began June 29, Bettman said “it was a little disappointing” that the players “have yet to have all of their proposals on the table” with a month to go.
He’s referring to the contractual system that the league wants to drastically modify (five-year max contracts, free agency from seven years of service to 10, entry-level contracts from three to five years, etc.). Because the union hasn’t responded to that, Bettman said the league isn’t “in a position to make a counterproposal” off the union’s Tuesday’s proposal.
Fehr said there are “Some proposals we are not sure we are going to make that we are considering,” and if they do, the league will have that by next week.
“They have almost everything,” said Fehr.
As you can tell, things are getting tenser with time running short.
Fehr reminded the reporters that this is a CBA that the owners insisted on seven years ago, and they did so with the stated expectation that it would fix all the problems.
That is completely true.
In 2005, Bettman stated after the lockout ended, “The CBA signals a new era for our league, an era of economic stability for our franchises. Our foundation for the future now is in place.”
The NHL canceled an entire season for that CBA – the same CBA that the owners now say didn’t fix the problems, the same CBA the owners are now looking to drastically modify. The same folks that are negotiating this CBA are the same folks that canceled an entire season to come up with this alleged flawed CBA.
Frankly, that is shameful and embarrassing.
Said Fehr: “If there are remaining problems, … is that the fault of the system in whole or at least in part?”
Now, I will say, don’t freak out just yet. As I wrote on the blog a few days ago, “There will still be moments of clashes and gloves being thrown down and no progress. But that’s all part of the bargaining process. It’s a negotiation. You know, most things don’t happen until there’s a deadline putting pressure on everybody to get a deal done, so expect this to drag on still.”
Fehr basically said the same thing yesterday, saying it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and you can’t judge every bargaining session like a sporting event and say who won and who lost.
But one thing is true: If there’s a lockout, the people that do lose are the fans.
Told that, Bettman said, “I don’t have an appetite either to not have hockey, so we’re all in agreement on that. I know what the game means and I know how important it is for our franchises and our game to be healthy from an economic standpoint and we’re working very, very hard.
“You know, it takes two sides to make a deal, it takes two sides to negotiate and it takes two sides if it all goes bad. And we’re working very hard hopefully to keep it from going bad.”
Fehr said in his mind, a deal can still be reached by the lockout deadline of Sept. 15, but also added, “There’s only one party here that’s talking about Sept. 15.”
So what happens now?
“You continue to negotiate,” Fehr said. “Hopefully you find more common ground and things evolve. … It means, you keep at it. You keep at it. … You hope that over time you find a way to have more common ground than you have today.”
Fehr’s right. You hope. And pray, I suppose, because this process is at a fragile stage.