By Stu Hackel
The headline for the wire service story on Friday’s CBA talks read, “NHL, union reps express optimism after three-hour session.” It was quite a contrast from the prior day and Gary Bettman’s thinly veiled warning of a lockout. The mood Thursday was bleak, the mood emerging from Friday’s talks was less contentious and more hopeful of an agreement being reached.
Really, however, nothing changed from one day to the next. It was just that more progress is being made in the discussions on the non-economic issues than those focusing on the game’s business. The dollars and sense talk — which cause the most consternation — continues on Tuesday, when the NHLPA presents their counter-offer to the NHL’s views on a reduction in the salary cap and rollbacks on individual player contract matters. That’s when we’ll have our first concrete understanding of how far apart the sides are.
The good feelings coming out of Friday’s talks on mostly hockey-related topics came largely from Ron Hainsey, the Jets veteran defenseman who addressed reporters after the session.
Hainsey brushed aside the commissioner’s warning. “We’re focused on getting them our proposal on Tuesday and getting a deal done in plenty of time that no time is missed,” he said. “I think it’s absolutely possible to get something done where no time is missed.” Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly added the hope that the progress from the hockey part of the CBA might spread to the critical economic talks (video). “I think if you’re starting to reach common ground and having some real negotiations and give and take on both sides, I think that can then bleed into other areas and may make a better environment for negotiations,” he said. “So hopefully that will be the case here.”
Those are words the entire hockey industry hopes come true. At minimum, Hainsey, Daly and others at the table deserve credit for keeping their public comments upbeat. If and when the gulf between the two sides that Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Don Fehr cited Thursday materializes once again, that optimism could take a hit.
On the subject of hitting and the consequences of bad hits during play, one of the main areas covered in Friday’s talks was the entire player disciplinary process, one of the few non-economic subjects in which differences between the sides are known to exist. Some characterized the discussions on supplementary discipline as eruptive, which spokesmen from both the owners and players downplayed. “At times there have been heated exchanges,” the NHLPA’s Mathieu Schneider said early last week. “There’s definitely strong opinions on both sides, especially when it comes to supplementary discipline, but I wouldn’t describe it as adversarial. Not at all.”
“I wouldn’t characterize it as tense, I really wouldn’t,” Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly seconded. “People had strongly held views, and we heard some players in particular, how important this issue is to them. That didn’t surprise anybody at our end of the table. Actually, I thought it was a good, lively discussion. I didn’t feel tense at any point.”
Judging from the comments Friday, whatever differences the parties have seem to be getting resolved. This has long been considered an important issue for the Players Association, in part because they feel the appeal process — all appeals are decided by Bettman — should be revamped to include a more impartial judge. In fact, there have been rumblings over time that the players believed the entire process by which they are disciplined needs renovation. Right now, that is handled entirely by the league through the Department of Player Safety, headed by Brendan Shanahan, with help from Rob Blake and Stephane Quintal, with those who previously engaged in the process — Colin Campbell and Mike Murphy — also contributing their experienced perspectives when Shanny’s group asks them.
The establishment of this new Department last season along with a much improved Rule 48 on hits to the head and Rule 42 on boarding became some of the bigger stories during the year. Shanahan’s videos reviewing each infraction that resulted in suspension were both praised and parodied. They did bring about some greatly welcomed transparency in the league’s decisions and served as good educational tools for the players on what was and was not considered acceptable by the league.
And yet, after an encouraging start featuring some sizable suspensions, Shanahan and company backed away and handed down relatively softer bans and fines instead of suspensions. They might have been somewhat tougher than those under Campbell, but we didn’t see consistently hard rulings that would serve as an immediate deterrent to dangerous plays such as deliberate contact to the head.
And once the playoffs rolled around, the Shea Weber-Henrik Zetterberg travesty followed by a week of unbridled craziness resulted in a reactionary crackdown by the Players Safety group, a massive public outcry helping the league realize it needed to get tougher. It revealed again just how gravely uncertain the NHL remains when it comes to cracking down on dangerous play. It was only four months ago, but it seems forgotten here amidst the labor news of early August.
The only time we saw the NHL get sufficiently tough on a player is when a serial head hit offender like Coyotes winger Raffi Torres crosses the line after previous recent offenses which warranted a harsher response (one of four games, one of two). In Torres’ case, he was justifiably slammed for 25 games after concussing Blackhawks star Marian Hossa, launching himself into Hossa with a shoulder to the chin during the playoffs.
Torres had the poor fate of committing his act when scrutiny was at its height but the inconsistency in punishments still chafes many. Raffi may have gotten whacked after two suspensions and a fine in the prior 13 months (not counting a warning or two) but the Blackhawks’ incorrigible Dan Carcillo got only seven games for his ninth episode of supplemental discipline and his fifth suspension, the previous four being mostly of the piddly two-game variety.
On appeal, Bettman reduced Torres’ ban to 21 games and Torres’ plight has come up when discipline is on the agenda at the CBA talks. As many have noted, the NHLPA is in a schizophrenic position when one player harms another: It has a legal obligation to defend the perpetrator even though his actions have hurt a fellow member.
Most fans and observers would like to see both the players and the owners take a more stringent stand against unacceptable behavior on the ice, but that never seems to happen. As with most of what’s going on at the bargaining table, it’s unknown what exactly is being proposed and debated on player discipline but it’s hard to fathom that they’re considering consistently tough punishments that would serve as effective deterrence to out-of-control acts.
The point that has been made often on this blog still holds true — none of the parties in hockey really want tougher sanctions. The coaches and GMs don’t want to lose their players; the owners don’t want to pay money to the NHL in forfeited salary when a player is suspended. The players want to play and don’t want to lose salary. The agents don’t want their clients to lose salary and their percentage of it. The one- and two-game bans from Colin Campbell may have morphed into three- or four-game bans from Brendan Shanahan, but we don’t see punishments starting at five games, 10 for a repeat offender, 15 for a three-time loser or anything like that. Chances are, we won’t, and the NHL’s most difficult on-ice problem will remain under-addressed in the CBA.
That’s all secondary to the fiscal fight we’re likely to see starting on Tuesday. The NHLPA’s alternative to the NHL’s proposal on the player salaries, contracts and revenue sharing gets delivered then. Yes, things have been cordial so far but the owners are not expecting the NHLPA to write them a love letter.
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