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What next after CBA talks disaster?

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Gary Bettman and Bill Daly

Gary Bettman may be too focused for the NHL’s own good on ridding the league of players union boss Donald Fehr. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

By Stu Hackel

They won’t be talking this weekend, but in the aftermath of the CBA train wreck this past week, the NHL and the NHLPA now have to go about the business of picking up debris and trying to reassemble it into, well, something.

Right now, this mess isn’t going anywhere and with all the ill will, it’s anybody’s guess at the moment what that something will be, what shape it might eventually take. Red Light habitually shies away from making predictions — a good practice, especially when it comes to these talks, as the most recent events remind us.

Taking into account the herky-jerky character the negotiations have assumed, it’s best to keep our expectations low.  That said, here are a few possible plot lines for what might lie ahead.

Scenario 1: After a brief cooling off period, the owners and players will get back to the table and try to hammer out a deal. Gary Bettman’s fuming retort aside, Don Fehr was not wrong to say that the sides are closer to a deal now than ever after this week’s negotiations — if the owners restore what they swiped off the table on Thursday evening.

Pat Leonard in The New York Daily News looked at many of the main points in the dispute, where they stood before the NHL withdrew them, and concluded that the sides had resolved the revenue split, had tentatively settled the player pension issue, were close to resolving the length of the CBA, contract variability, and the misnamed “Make Whole” provision (what the NHLPA calls “transition payments”), and had moved closer on the maximum length of individual contracts, but were still apart on compliance issues.

Now, things fell apart because the owners have dug in and don’t want to meet the union’s movement toward them on the length of the CBA and individual contract length. In his blog post about where each side is on the major issues EPSN.com’s Pierre LeBrun writes, “Bettman said the offer was off the table, but the reality is, if the players next week are willing to play ball with what the league proposed, that deal is still available. What the players have to figure out for themselves is whether waiting this out longer will help them get more. There’s no question the patience that Fehr has preached to his membership has paid off, the best example being the owners moving from $211 million to $300 million in make-whole.”

LeBrun believes that the players should take the offer as it stands and when it comes to getting this over with, that makes Scenario 1 is the best case. But, depending on the mood among the players, it may not be the most likely.

Scenario 2: We see a quick resumption of talks, but the players try to get the owners to move off the issues on which the league says they won’t budge, like the lengths of the CBA and individual contracts. While there are no doubt players who want to take the deal if it’s back on the table, there may be more who want ownership to move more in their direction, believing that the union has already given enough. The players have remained quite strong and unified as a group thus far, confident that when they hear each side’s lead negotiator say their side has been the one that has done the most to reach a deal, it’s Fehr who is being more truthful.

In her interesting new piece for Grantland on the CBA negotiating tactics, Katie Baker writes, “For all the sound and fury, it seems clear the question of who will come out ahead in this deal has been settled: Almost all of the meaningful movement to this point has come from the players’ side. They agreed to a 50-50 revenue split, down from the 57 percent they have been receiving. They budged on contract term limits and the length of the CBA (though not far enough to satisfy the NHL; those issues are two of the remaining sticking points). They submitted, implicitly, to the idea that teams may not wind up paying in full all the contracts that their front offices offered and inked — some of them just weeks before the expiration of the last CBA.

“By comparison, the NHL hasn’t yielded much of anything. Some of the items on which the league considers itself to have compromised — arbitration rights and the parameters surrounding free agency, for example — are merely remaining unchanged from the last (already owner-friendly) CBA. Others aren’t exactly generous: One of the league’s biggest concessions to date has been its willingness to create a “make whole” fund that would help ease the transition down to a 50-50 revenue split from 57-43 — meaning the NHL has grudgingly agreed to pay some, though likely not all, of the salaries it contractually owes.

“So when considering this whole unholy mess, it’s worth remembering that when the NHL talks about how far it has moved toward the middle in these labor discussions, it’s not really in terms relative to the status quo, but rather in comparison to the lowball-y offer the league opened negotiations with back in July.”

Baker adds, “If the NHLPA is guilty of trying, a bit disingenuously, to make the league look like the bad guys by overemphasizing just how close everyone is, the NHL has damaged its credibility too: by saying time and again that they are making a final, take-it-or-leave-it, we-can’t-do-better-than-this offer — and then, weeks later, doing better than that.”

It’s up to Fehr and the players to figure out if the league can move further toward them or if it is truly dug in. It’s a conceivable route for the talks to take, but it likely won’t mean a quick resolution to the lockout. It might lead to a deal or it may put us right back where we are now with less time remaining on the clock before the season is canceled.

Scenario 3: Let’s say Thursday’s wild scene has angered everyone so much that the cooling-off period is not so brief. Bill Daly doesn’t return Steve Fehr’s phone calls, and doesn’t even leave him any more voice mail. And even if they talk, there’s no desire for a resumption of formal negotiations. A few weeks go by as the owners try to sweat the players, raise the level of their uncertainty by having the clock tick down to Doomsday and the cancellation of the season. The idea behind that would be for the owners to pressure the union into folding, and push Don Fehr to come crawling back to the league and say, “We’ll take your last offer and live with those items you won’t move on.”

Of course, at that point, knowing that he had the upper hand, Gary Bettman could respond with, “Forget that,” and reduce the owners’ offer even further. Would the players concede in such a fashion? It depends on how strong they are in their convictions and how long they, as a group, can hold on to them.

Right now that doesn’t seem to be a likely scenario. It’s certainly not impossible. It would be the owners’ dream and they may try it. But apart from some isolated Roman Hamrliks and such, the players have not shown many overt signs of caving and Don Fehr doesn’t do the crawl. (For some interesting and illuminating background on Fehr, here’s a Sports Illustrated profile from his days as head of the Major League Baseball Players Association.)

Scenario 4A: It’s possible that the owners and players will get back together, but diddle around and hold out their best offers until the last possible moment, playing brinksmanship until the eve of cancellation. Then someone blinks and the deal gets done.

Scenario 4B: They play brinksmanship and neither side blinks, meaning a deal doesn’t get done. It’s not impossible.

While observers like me wring our hands and fret about the extensive damage being done to the game, Bettman has a slightly different approach. Asked on Thursday if he was concerned that a deal isn’t reached, some franchises might be put in jeopardy, he replied, “My bigger concern is that if we make the wrong deal here, there are more franchises in jeopardy.”

The fear of making “the wrong deal” is, perhaps, the biggest factor driving each of these parties. Twice before, Bettman has previously locked out the players and then claimed victory. And twice before, the workings of the CBA had the owners spending more on players than they wanted to. (Of course, they’d be happiest spending nothing). He can’t win the negotiation and lose the CBA a third time.

(UPDATE: Eric Duhatschek in The Globe and Mail wrote about this phemonenon in his Saturday story. His contention is that this is the way it always goes and the way it will go again, writing “The players will win because the minute the ink is dry on a new collective agreement, agents and general managers will find clever ways to circumvent the spirit and language of the new deal….That’s not going to stop Bettman and Daly from trying to plug the most costly and egregious loopholes. It’s simply their way of trying to protect the owners from themselves, and the main reason Daly described contract term limits as ‘the hill we will die on’ as negotiations ground to a halt again.”)

And Fehr knows he’s already had to make all sorts of concessions. He can’t close a deal that surrenders so much that it causes his members to wonder what was the point of forfeiting so many paychecks and so much playing time. So, yes, the standoff could continue beyond the point when the schedule can’t be played. That is one worst-case scenario. There is one that is equally, if not even worse, than 4B, however, and that is…

Scenario 5: It’s the one I hope has no basis in truth, but I’m afraid it has at least some: What if the owners’ real motive is not to make a deal as much as it is to rid themselves of Fehr? No one on the owners side will ever admit that, but this strain of thinking is out there, without question.

The owners’ extreme dislike of Don Fehr may have begun when he insisted that realignment not proceed last fall. But since this CBA process started, they have spent so much time demonizing him that one has to believe they are at least partly convinced that he is their problem, not the fact that they can’t figure out how to save their struggling franchises, because it’s Fehr who stands in the way of their favored solution: shifting the burden onto the players.

On CSN Bay Area, Ray Ratto writes about this very thing, and it’s worth reading. Ratto said that baseball’s owners realized 17 years ago that “the deal is more important than the personalities, and the deals got done.” Have the NHL’s owners realized that? Too frequently they act like a hockey team that has forgotten the puck, more interested in chasing after the opposition’s pest than playing the game.

The NHLPA certainly suspects getting Fehr out of the process is a primary goal, as union staffer Matthieu Schneider told the SiriusXM NHL Network Radio audience on Friday (audio).

The NHL is a league that functioned for years with the PA as a company union and the antagonisms only began when Bob Goodenow succeeded owner-friendly Alan Eagleson. Without that old “special relationship,” the owners had to find another way to do business and that’s how Gary Bettman ended up as commissioner, his main task already clear to him the day he agreed to take the job two decades ago — and, on Sportsnet.ca, Steven Brunt writes that in Fehr, Bettman has met his mirror image. This, too, is worth reading.

The goal of someone in Don Fehr’s position is to get the best deal he can for the players, not to not get a deal. If it’s true that the owners are more focused on eliminating Fehr — and I’m not convinced they are, but others certainly think so — they are going to pursue whatever path in these negotiations they believe will put him in the worst position with his membership, and that could mean not making a deal at all. That would be very foolish for all sorts of reasons, but the owners have made numerous miscalculations in this conflict. They may not be above being foolish on this.

Scenario 6: Decertification or disclaimer of interest. We talked about that briefly late last month and linked to Eric Macramalla’s post on TSN’s website. Here’s another link, from Grantland’s Gabe Feldman on the NBA’s disclaimer of interest and how it’s a quicker process than decertification. Believed to be a risky tactic that, under the threat of antitrust litigation, could force the owners to negotiate, or backfire and turn the entire picture into a chaotic mess, it’s an option for the NHLPA. Some observers believe the union might even consider going that route before the season’s cancellation is upon us.

There are almost certainly other possible outcomes that I haven’t considered. After Thursday’s carnival — which no one could have anticipated — we should be prepared for anything.

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  • Published On Dec 07, 2012
  • 18 comments
    wran61er
    wran61er

    Isn't there a third side to these "Agreements"? What about what the fans are expected to put up with as a result of the loss of half a hockey season and an expected loss of the full season, with the way Bettman showed himself in his last press conference... Maybe the fans need to get together and tell what they're willing and unwilling to do as a result of the owners not moving toward an agreement in order to save the season! I for one vow to give up my $150 a year NHL.com package if we don't get at least 40 games out of the remaining season. I also will stop paying for the Versus channel and will stop going to games where concessions and souvenirs are so outrageously over priced that you have to laugh when you see the price just for a beer. Is anyone else up for a boycott?

    WilyCoyoteSuperGenius
    WilyCoyoteSuperGenius

    Here is how to settle this ridiculous situation - Fehr and Bettman have to stand in goal - without masks or a cup while outraged fans get to take slapshots until they come to an agreement. But then - I don't care - I won't be back as a fan in any event. I'll go to college games and watch the International tournaments.

    brad17
    brad17

    Scenaro 7 the NHL falls behind soccer and Nascar in popular sports in North America. The same time fans have moved on and the NHL lost all the work they`ve done it the last hundred years ! Hope it was worth it for both sides?

    Jonma
    Jonma

    me1, you mention posters that side with the league and I haven;t read enough of the other blog posts to see that, but I can't understand how anyone could, unless they are an owners' employee posting to get a point across for their bosses.  Gary Bettman and the owners simply do not care about anything but money. They have no appreciation for the game. No appreciation for how the 1980 US Olympic team turned the climate of a nation around, No appreciation for the fact that hockey was a global game when our US leagues were trumpeting "world championships " that were earned within our borders, when their companies still had "international divisions" staffed by American white male expatriates. And most important, they do not care about the players with multiple concussions who have a permanent black line through their field of vision. They don't care about the enforcers who have died, or committed suicide, because of what the game did to them physically and emotionally.  The only thing that should happen now is that Jim Balsille should find a few other investors and start a Canadian Hockey League, make arena deals, and draft players from current NHL rosters. Six teams should do it for now.

    SarahUpton
    SarahUpton

    I really have been bummed out about no hockey, but what has entered my mind of late is this. I AMA fan of the Carolina Hurricanes. It isn't without question a scenario exists that a deal is done but puts the team I love in jeopardy of non-existence. I'm not a particularly smart guy, I just pray that cooler, and smarter, heads prevail and that those who really want the Canes to survive will winin the end...even if it means disappointment in the short term.

    me1
    me1

    I find it interesting that some of the posters here that side with the League support not honoring existing contracts in hockey, but are 100% against breaking any contract in the political threads. Then again, it really isn't interesting. It just says a lot about those posters.

    MattJanosko
    MattJanosko

    I think what is going on here is Bettman, at what seems is very deliberate instructions from a few hard-line owners, is trying to crush the union and also beat Fehr personally. With the 1994-95 lockout, I think it's clear that Goodenow and the NHLPA won that lockout and Bettman and Co. wanted to show "who really is boss" heading into the 2004-05 lockout...and they achieved their goal. Goodenow, who was clearly from the same mold that Fehr is from, got usurped and the PA eventually caved and took an enormous beating at the time. Goodenow took his ball and went home with tail between his legs and Bettman and Co. smiled.....and the PA was a mess in the next few years. Enter Fehr....

     

    Fehr is clearly Bettman's match (maybe even superior regarding labor negotiations given his track record). I'm sure this is driving the league nuts as you and others say. It's like they had this backroom mentality and agreement to not back down and show who's boss again.....their opening offer was so ridiculously low that when they budge they can say they are making concessions to the players.....and I'm sure Fehr's denial of realignment, subsequent refusal to negotiate earlier while "getting to know the union" and eventual 2 month waiting game to respond to the NHL's initial offering (obviously all a ploy for more leverage in negotiating) drove them even farther into an alpha male mentality is these negotiations.

     

    I honestly believe this is personal....just like it was in 2004-05 (though at least that lockout was far more justified considering how economically the NHL was paying major league baseball salaries despite generating minor league baseball revenues....so clearly a cap was needed). The NHL has a long history of corrupt ownership practices (James Norris owning the Red Wings, effectively owning the Black Hawks and also being the largest shareholder of the Rangers during the Original Six era....puppet leader for the NHLPA in owner friendly Eagelson....crushing almost all attempts at an NHLPA formation and punishing players involved....WHA war and eventual merger...true reasons for expansion.... etc, etc, etc.).....and this is another chapter in that they'll destroy  any headway made after the last lockout just in order to make sure that 30 billionaires remain de facto dictator and The Kings of Hockey. And Fehr, with his confrontational attitude and mentality, will absolutely not back down.

     

    Both sides are responsible....I blame Fehr a little on this with his tactics....but I mostly blame Bettman and the owners (especially Jacobs and others in his little clique).

    Jonma
    Jonma

    A key problem here is that there is no owner for whom owning an NHL franchise is their principal source of revenue. Every one of them can write off the losses no matter what happens. This is the classic bacon and egg breakfast - the chicken is involved, the pig is committed. The owners are involved, the players are committed. It;s their livelihood.  If a Canadian commissioner had done to baseball what Bettman has done to hockey, Ottowa would be smoking under a concrete containment dome. It is appalling that Canada's national pastime has been held hostage for 20 years to a New York lawyer.

    geeon1
    geeon1

     @wran61er Isn't Versus part of your cable package? I don't think you can just not pay for it.

    geeon1
    geeon1

     @Jonma I am all for contraction, however the PLAYERS would never go for it. It would mean loss of jobs. Both sides are guilty, however lets look at what the owners do/pay for: The employees, the players, the insurance, the food, the travel, the equiptment (aside of sticks even though i think they pay for that too) and many other costs. Getting 43% with all these other costs was ridiculously low. Yes I know HRR is a "sham" but you do realize that most of the other revenues are not necessarily hockey related.  50-50 of even the defined HRR is probably fair though still hurting the weaker teams(which should be contracted). Revenue sharing is really unfair here because only a few teams make decent dollars. No reason whatsoever that they should be supporting markets that have proven to be non Hockey draws.

    dud dew
    dud dew

     @Jonma I have seen many posts from the folks "me1" is citing.  Puzzling as hell.

    It's as if they are saying, "We are serfs, and proud of it.  We want all our friends to be serfs.

    We want our sons and daughters to be serfs.  The life of a serf is good!  The masters love us, and our children.  They even swear it in their Christmas cards! I only wish we could afford stamps to send them "thank-yous" for remembering us!  If these disobedient hockey guys don't stop the fuss, we may not get our Christmas cards  this year!"

    And some recognize the kind of irrefutable logic which appears in the Grantland piece and elsewhere, and still, like spoiled brats, shriek, "I want my hockey, and I want it now...I blame both sides!"

    They are the same mopes moved by the darkness in the Derek B tale in one thread, then cheer for all the fights this year's goon gets into in the very next.  No ability/intention to connect dots.  Connecting dots is for adults, and hockey is part of their social contract to go on being self-indulgent, self-absorbed

    twelve-year-olds forever

    geeon1
    geeon1

     @SarahUpton Under any scenario provided by both sides contraction of teams is not an option. Bettman won't allow it because he wants to prove that Hockey is viable in all markets Players won't allow it because of all the jobs that would be lost.

    geeon1
    geeon1

     @me1 Contracts are broken all the time. Example Hostess: they kept asking to reduce pay packages to stay viable, it wasn't until the union said no that the company folded altogether.

    WilyCoyoteSuperGenius
    WilyCoyoteSuperGenius

     @Jonma - I disagree - the problem is owners like the Jacobs family - who steal/make $30-50 million per season from the Bruins. Every dollar that doesn't go into players pockets goes into theirs.

    dhayen
    dhayen

     @Jonma

     You are right on my friend!!  We need a Canadian in charge.  We need Canadian leadership from both sides.  I am an American who is embarassed by the leadership in all sports in this country who have been running them into the ground.  Might not happen in my lifetime but I believe a professional league will fold due to greed and egos.  Wait, it could happen this month, my beloved NHL.

    DickDiamond
    DickDiamond

     @Jonma You have nailed this to the billboard!  Absolutely!  The cartel doesn't need the hockey teams they own.  A bunch of multi-millionaires who want to bust the union.  What I hope is realized by the fans is that THEY (the fans) are just so much chopped liver. 

    geeon1
    geeon1

     @WilyCoyoteSuperGenius  @Jonma Wily you do realize that the Bruins have put a winning team on the ice since they were created right? They spend. The issue here is many of the smaller market teams are floundering and causing the bigger market teams financial issues. Imagine the Bruins going to the Phoenix coyotes, 2000 fans show up to watch, NO MONEY is made by either side, The bruins in effect wasted a cross country trip and lost money.