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Does the NHL really want a CBA deal?

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Donald Fehr

Some people are speculating that the NHL owners really think of NHLPA leader Donald Fehr as a kind of intractable bogeyman who must be worked around, not with, if a new CBA is to be reached. (Photo by Sitthixay Ditthavong/AP)

By Stu Hackel

If the NHL owners hoped to get the NHLPA to reconsider their most recent offer, they may have just — by blunder or intention — pushed the players further away.

Tuesday, on the eve of the NHL’s deadline to reach a deal to save a full 82-game season, the owners rejected an invitation from the players to resume negotiations. “That is unfortunate as it is hard to make progress without talking,” said NHLPA special counsel Steve Fehr.

And last week, without telling the NHLPA that it was doing so, the league permitted club executives to speak to players about their offer presented a week ago Tuesday.

A gag order against commenting publicly about the lockout and the CBA negotiations has been in place for all NHL personnel. Additionally, players and their teams are normally prohibited from having any contact during a lockout, which is why players cannot use their teams’ facilities and interact with coaches. It’s a precaution the league takes because certain discussions of the issues in the dispute can be illegal, so it’s best to avoid contact completely.

But for a 48-hour period last week, the NHL allowed the clubs to communicate with the players, within certain guidelines that did not violate the law. (Yahoo! Sports obtained the league office’s memo to the teams and part of it has been published on the Puck Daddy blog.) The stated idea was to answer questions that the players might have about the offer and permit team execs to express their views and opinions of it.

“The NHLPA is, in fact and in law, the sole collective bargaining representative of the Players. Any effort to motivate the Players must be to have them act through their union, not instead of or in opposition to it,” the memo stated in part. “YOU MAY NOT: ‘Negotiate’ with a Player.’ This means you may not explore alternatives or variations to the proposals on the table. As a matter of labor law, you are permitted to express the views and opinions of the Club and the League concerning the proposal.”

Additionally, Kevin Allen of USA Today published other excerpts that include more specific guidelines.

“The attempt (at communication) — right or not — is being viewed as an end-around on executive director Donald Fehr,” writes The Sporting News’ Sean Gentille. “The move annoyed the NHLPA, and considering that Thursday’s league-set deadline for saving a full schedule approaches with no meetings scheduled, that’s not a good thing.”

This revelation of league sanctioned club-player contact was first uncovered by Dave Morissette of the Quebec television network TVA and confirmed by his colleague Jean Louis. It came on the heels of the NHL negotiators’ quick dismissal of the NHLPA’s three counter-proposals and equally quick exit from Toronto, scene of last week’s most recent negotiations.

Steve Fehr, the NHLPA special counsel, explained the incongruity of what the league attempted by allowing club executives who have not been involved at all in the negotiations to answer players’ questions about them. “Most owners are not allowed to attend bargaining meetings,” he said in a released statement. “No owners are allowed to speak to the media about the bargaining. Interesting that they are secretly unleashed to talk to the players about the meetings the players can attend but the owners cannot.”

Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly has been downplaying the whole episode. He told the AP that it was not illegal and called it a “non-issue and a non-story,” but what’s he going to say? Something like, “Hey, this was probably inappropriate and we really shouldn’t be making the other side angry if we’re also tying hard to make a deal with them”?

Don’t think so.

The union’s worst suspicion, of course, is that team execs might have used the 48-hour window to make the players have second thoughts about their so-far staunch support of the NHLPA or, worse, urge them to change their position. That sort of direct discussion is prohibited by law, as the league’s memo points out.  But unless a player came forth and accused his club of a violation — and how likely is it that he would drop a dime on his team? — there’s little way of enforcing the rule.

Regardless, the union can’t be happy and the trust factor between the two sides, already pretty low, has probably sunk appreciably lower. We’ve mentioned in a previous post the various tactical blunders the NHL has made in these negotiations, but we’ve also recognized that Gary Bettman is a very shrewd negotiator. One has to wonder if, in fact, the NHL’s frequent apparent missteps might not be blunders at all, but intentional ploys designed to drive the two sides further apart. We generally have assumed that the league wants to make a deal and, as many observers and even some labor experts have pointed out, there seems to be one that can be made now that both sides have roughly agreed on a 50-50 split in revenue.

But what if the owners — led by their hardliners — have concluded, despite their claims to the contrary, that their interests would be better served if they were to not make a deal, repeating the way they acted in 2004? John Shannon of Sportsnet posted a very interesting piece on Saturday delineating all the machinations the NHL has gone through because of their fear of Don Fehr. Shannon concluded that even though the NHLPA’s executive director has changed the game’s labor relations, Fehr still has to deliver a contract to his members or he will have failed. Does the NHL feel not negotiating a deal is a way to weaken a leader who has stood up to them?

That would explain any number of strange things that the league has done until now, starting with its first unacceptable offer to the players.

It’s hard to know for sure what the strategies of each side are. The league has accused the NHLPA of slowing the negotiation process, and that very well could be true. (Pat Leonard of The New York Daily News has a very good piece on that which is recommended reading.) But might the same thing be said about the owners?

New Jersey Devils President/ GM Lou Lamoriello probably expressed the wishes of many in the hockey world when he suggested his solution for ending the lockout to Mark Everson for Tuesday’s New York Post: “Maybe we should do like they do with juries. Lock them in a room until they reach a verdict.” He’s clearly not interested in any strategy that would keep the lockout going.

The problem is that the representatives of the owners and players have to agree to be locked in a room to get a deal done, and the people they represent have to authorize that sort of bargaining.  Unlike a jury trial, there’s no judge in sight to order them sequestered for the duration.

That’s why the lockout landscape remains bleak. Even though a number of journalists and other observers are convinced that a deal could be forged in the near future, maintain that now is the time to do it in order to save the season and have even forwarded suggestions about how to get there, none of that has much of an impact. All that really matters are the respective perspectives and wills of the negotiators and, right now, those perspectives aren’t changing and there is no willingness on either side to move off the positions that have currently been staked out.

The memo on club-player contact isn’t going to change that. Nor is the owners refusal to negotiate.

“This is simply inconceivable in an industry that continues to spin record revenue, despite a world economy that remains stuck in a recession,” writes David Shoalts in The Globe and Mail. “After seven years spent pulling its business out of the periphery of the professional sports industry, these people are acting like they don’t care if the NHL drives away enough fans to once again make it a fringe league.”

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  • Published On Oct 23, 2012
  • 27 comments
    bear0055
    bear0055

    I guess the league and its players are missing a very important piece of the puzzle... There isn't any percentage of revenue to argue over if you don't play any games or have a season.  If the owners didn't like the way player contracts were trending in terms of how large and confusing they were becoming they should not have let their GM's create them.  The fact that they are sitting here and demanding to not pay for their dinner after eating it is a disgrace to them as "business professionals."  Bite the bullet and do the right thing, pay the contracts you signed, and set rules against future contract negotations only.  Finally, a 50/50 split should be based on all league "Net Profit."  If they want a true 50/50 split show your league I&E statement just like you show your players salaries and lets get this deal done...

    pmartin48048
    pmartin48048

    I am tired of all of this. We lost '94 in what should have been '94 - '95. We lost '04 - '05 and now the possibility of another lost season. Memo to ANYONE associated with the NHL and its teams: FORGET YOU! I'm tired of the poor way this league has handled its labor woes at the expense of the fan base. I give up. I'm done. I will NEVER attend another NHL game or watch on TV AGAIN....and before the piling on starts, I am not some peripheral fan in a minor market like Phoenix. I WAS a die hard Red Wings fan living in the D who has made the pilgrimage to The Joe many, many, many times a season. Not anymore. The memories of Stevie Y, Gordie, Nick, and the Mick live on in my head. Good riddance.

    John9
    John9

    The simple explanation is that the league sees the writing on the wall: Fehr does not intend to negotiate.  I think most fans, and obviously the league too, understood when he came over from baseball that he was not coming to quietly oversee a minor drop in player income and move on.  The NHL believes that an immediate shift in the revenue split is necessary for the business, so they really have few, if any, options in front of them to try to get a short-term resolution.

    Marc Blandori
    Marc Blandori

    I had an idea in the year following the '95-'96 lockout which I kept to myself for no apparent reason. Now that those running the NHL are poised to wreck the '12-'13 season, as a battered (NHL) hockey fan,  I am hoping this idea will gain momentum. So here it is: If and when the wealthy turkeys and the NHLPA come to terms and are able to stage a professional hockey event in however many cities, the powerless fans MUST boycott that first game in their home arena. Let the owners and players compete in an venue with nobody in the seats. Let them experience what the intensity of this great sport in an empty arena. This is the statement the fans must make after a series of lockouts. Let's make it clear the the owners & players that lockouts are UNACCEPTABLE! And guess what, it looks like we have tons of time to rally the fans...........

    JamesLandonJones
    JamesLandonJones

    Hockey?!? There's great hockey being played right now. The Kontinental Hockey League ROCKS! Check 'em out...

    its419
    its419

    There are two things that have to happen in this negotiation if we're not going to be right back here again in a few years.

     

    First, the league has to open its books. I don't think the union needs to see them, but hiring a law firm (even if it has strong ties to the owners) to act as third party arbitrator would do. The league and the union could tender their offers to the arbitrator, that team could crunch the respective tenders together with an eye towards the unabridged facts, and put together a package that is fair to both sides with no spin, or at least as close as humanly possible.

     

    And second,  a better plan for revenue sharing between large and small market teams has to become a reality, to go along with a less-flexible salary cap. The competitive balance that the league has enjoyed for the past seven years isn't something that should be discarded. The record profits that some teams are generating won't continue if the league can't provide some sort of stability.

     

    Once those two things happen, lock them in the room and tell them they can't leave until a deal is done within that proposed framework. The stability of such a deal would enable the sport to grow to where everyone wants it to be. The lack of stability is why NBC was able to get all the TV rights for a mere $200 million a year, while the NFL can get 10 times that amount. If NBC doesn't get a Winter Classic this year, expect them to be out to punish the NHL when it's time to renew the deal again.

    CraigBoylstein
    CraigBoylstein

    Owners need changed. They are 100% awful. There is a hard cap; players have agreed to get down to a 50% split of revenue - this shouldn't be hard to reach an agreement. I agree with this article. Some owners simply could care less if there's a season; their team stinks and they aren't making money. They are killing the league. 

    I hope this league blows up and an alternative is offered next year. The NHL is run by greedy self-righteous imbeciles.

     

    MarkAlanParker
    MarkAlanParker

    This lockout will prove to be a disaster for the NHL players & owners. NHL is not a sport that can afford to lose their fan base - people will turn their attention (and already have) to other things. Once again, greed had ruined what used to be a fun game to attend/watch. I'm done with 'em.

    GoHabsGo
    GoHabsGo

    AND THE LAWYERS KEEP PADDING THEIR POCKETS

    pieni
    pieni

    The owners wait two weeks and then they will offer the players 40% - and if it is not accepted within two days next offer will be 35%. And next year's offer is 10% - take it or leave the hockey. Next summer, the owners make deals with new players right out of the universities and the pay is $ 10,000 a game. The ticket price is $ 2 game, and the owners make profits in the normal way. Players? Well there is a lot of space on the sidewalk: "Brother, can you save me a dime."

    NicholasMew
    NicholasMew

    If the players really want to stick it to Bettman and the NHL, all they need are enough business people like Jim Balsillie to start a rival league.  There's no way they'd even come close to NHL salaries, but they could start a new league like the WHA did in the past.  Then when Bettman and the owners came calling with an offer, the players could simply say, sorry, not interested.  We're making a comfortable living, and we don't want to deal with you anymore.

    TomvanderVoort
    TomvanderVoort

    The owners want to extract as much money from the players as possible. That is the motivation for the lockout. To get maximum leverage they will have to cancel games. They will definitely cancel games and are only doing their best to win the PR war in the meanwhile.

    Subzero1972
    Subzero1972

    This has become ridiculous , I don't feel sorry for a bunch of millionaires and their greed. These Players make way too much money to play a freakin game. I have watched the NHL and went to games since I was six years old. I watched Brett Hull and Adam Oates as well as Brendan Shanahan . My old man never paid as much for tickets as I have in the past few years he didnt make that much. This game used to be a Blue collar staple , drink a beer and go to the game. You did'nt have to be wealthy to go. Even without the recession it way too expensive, And you all want more money? Are you serious? Damn right you'll loose fans probably myself included . Have you guys become so deluded as to think that this game is so important when everyone is broke and havin problems just surviving. This game use to be fun to watch when players cared about the game more than their paycheck. It shows on the ice as well . If this is the future of Hockey i would rather watch old time Hockey on the classics channel.

     

    TommyCzxqa
    TommyCzxqa

     @John9 As is very often the case, simple explanations are simplistic and incorrect. Please explain one positive thing the NHL has offered the players. Just one.

     

    So why don't you put yourself in the players' position and ask yourself would you agree to this sweetheart deal? 

    1) Sit at home unemployed for a whole year.

    2) Agree to go back to work for a 24% pay cut, and your raises would be based on how well the company does. 

    3) We're going to go ahead and hang on to 10-15% of your paycheck till the end of the year in case the company doesn't make enough money. That'll come out of your end to make the company whole. 

    4) Now go home again seven years later and sit, you're welcome to sit for another whole year unemployed for all we care.

    5) You need to take another 12% pay cut (grudgingly reduced from 24%.)

    6) Your raises won't be so generous anymore, you don't get any say in them, and you're not allowed to find another job for ten years. 

    7) We reserve the right to send you home and make you sit again for a whole year six years from now. 

     

    Yeah, what was I thinking? That's a GREAT deal! 

    geeon1
    geeon1

     @MarkAlanParker I disagree, many will come back as the winter months are void of sports.

    You have the NBA and the NHL: NBA is boring to watch until the last 3 minutes or so. NHL is fun to watch from puck drop one to the final whistle. The fans will come back.

    syndromezed
    syndromezed

     @pieni And what do the owners do when ESPN picks up KHL games with the former veteran NHL players and leaves the NHL to play a bunch of mediocre games filled with "who dats" on NBC Sports?  You really think even Canadian die-hards would tune in to watch a glorified college game on NBCS when they could watch Ovechkin vs. Datsyuk on ESPN? 

    John9
    John9

     @NicholasMew Sure, Balsillie's the kind of honest, shrewd businessman you want running your operation. You have to think the Pittsburgh, Nashville and Pheonix acquisition failures were just an aberration; RIM too.  Surely he's done something that hasn't ended up in a nose-dive, right?

    geeon1
    geeon1

     @NicholasMew Who will supply the arenas? The money for insurance, the money for traveling, etc. Hockey is not a big money maker as proven by many of the teams losing money.

    Also I am thinking that the players would rather go with the owners 47% split idea before taking the necessarily very low salaries a new league would offer.

     

    Paul44
    Paul44

     @NicholasMew

     I agree 100%, time for the players to cut themselves away from the owners and start their own league.

    geeon1
    geeon1

     @TomvanderVoort What they need to do is just implement their CBA and invite the players back. They will strike, then the NHL can go the replacement route. Remember there are tons of decent players out there that are not good enough for the current NHL, yet would still be better than replacement football players. Lots of players from all over the world would jump. Now as a side bar to this many of the players right now are getting fidgety. They are not getting pay checks but some of their team mates are playing and getting paid. The owners (as they already are doing) will reach out to them to see how many will cross the line.

    Money talks, the longer this goes the better it will be for the NHL Owners. They know this, Fehr knows this.

    acstrat63
    acstrat63

     @Subzero1972 Lets look at it this way for you...Your Job ...Your management comes to you and says Subzero we agreed to pay you too much when you started working here...so what we decided to you is we are going to cut your salary....Thats ok with you...if not then you cant work here

    Millionaires aside ...The owners made there bed by giving these contracts to these players, Show some fiscal restraint and If they do or did we wouldnt be in the position.    

    Who do you think sets the prices on your Beer and the game ...The Owners the same ones that set the salary of said Millionaire players......................Seems to me the Owners are in trouble paying for underachieving Franchises and need to make money up somewhere, The part they dont understand is The public doesnt come to watch the owners play . they come to watch  Stamkos, Parise and Quick ...... I hope the players hold strong, I know I will and Im a season seat holder and Love the game of Hockey.

    geeon1
    geeon1

     @acstrat63  @Subzero1972 That said you realize those seats are supplied by the onwers as are the players. See the one thing you fail to realize here is the owners try to bring a winning team for you to watch. That means trying to nab a high end player and securing them with the team for years. Agents, owners and the players helped inflate the costs. Too many teams have tried far too hard to be competitive and are losing money because of this. It is a drain that both sides created, now it needs to be fixed.

    There are only three real options:

    1) lower players salaries, which we have all read about

    2) Contraction, which neither side will go for. Players lose valuable jobs. Owners probably would be more open to this but it would affect one of their own

    3) Revenue sharing: This works in BIG leagues. However the NHL does not generate that kind of money. All this would do would drain the bigger teams of money. They are for the most part not making enough for this option. How fair would it be to Toronto,Montreal, Boston,Detroit and NY to be the sugar daddies of the league? Not very. Plus there is not enough revenue to help.

     

     

    John9
    John9

     @geeon1  The size of the league has little to do with the benefits of sharing revenue and $3.3 billion isn't exactly small-time at that.  Based on the Forbes numbers, the revenue gap between the top and bottom is such that, if you want competitive parity, you have to employ a revenue-evening mechanism.  But if the Forbes numbers are even remotely accurate, revenue sharing indeed is not going to get you even remotely close to financially healthy.  So ultimately I think you're dead on - lowering player salaries is necessary.

    geeon1
    geeon1

    Ack typo on dollar amount : not less that 1 million meant to type less than 3 million.

    geeon1
    geeon1

     @acstrat63  @Subzero1972 How many teams are actually losing money? 10-12? The number is that big because of a few teams doing well.

    On whole the league is not healthy financially.

    I disagree with you some what on the big businesses not wanting other franchises to be successful. A healthy league will generate more revenue. $2 billion is peanuts. You do realize that there are 30 teams in the NHL with $2billion in revenue if spread out evenly is merely $66.7 million per team. 23 players per team (not including those that get sent to the minors). Is less than 1 million per player.  yes there are other revenues, such as seating, parking, concessions etc. but no way is there the kind of money available to keep this league running healthy right now. This is why salaries need to come down.

    teams like the NY rangers have lucrative TV deals from which to draw from a team like the Coyotes do not. the islanders do not, wild do not, panthers do not etc. they all have some form of deal in place but they do not generate enough for the salaries some of these teams are dishing out. take into account the fact that the owners pay for the stadiums,travel,food,insurance and many many other things and you can see why teams are losing serious money.

    acstrat63
    acstrat63

     @geeon1  @Subzero1972 Hmmm

    here is a thought pay less in salaries and you wouldnt be in this spot!!!!

    and them trying to be the best is why it only took them 7 years to screw this up again

     

    Owners Dont care about one another if they did there would be revenue sharing

    Top Franchise supported by big business (Comcast et al) have no desire to help another team be successful

    the NHL generates plenty of money ...last I looked if it didnt why would it HELP 2 franchises (Phoenix, Buffalo) it isnt to save the players jobs ...by there offers they dont care about them....its to save them Profit plain and simple 

    thats why its making 2 billion not loosing money.