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NHL in dire need of labor relations fix

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Gary Bettman

Gary Bettman says he’s pleased to with an “ongoing process” that he and the team owners have often torpedoed. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

By Stu Hackel

For the third straight day, representatives of the NHL owners and players reconvened on Wednesday as the NHLPA responded to the league’s most recent proposal, which it received on Tuesday. With the January 11 deal deadline for a reduced 48-game season fast approaching, real, honest, serious negotiations seem to be taking place at last. More are scheduled for Thursday.

UPDATE: The NHLPA made a counter-proposal to the NHL’s Tuesday offer, itself a counter-proposal and the sides met again Wednesday evening to discuss it. There appears to be general agreement on the length of the CBA at 10 years, with an opt-out at eight, a concession by the players, but there are reports the players want some additional stipulations included. There are also reports that the players may agree to the six-year limit on contracts, seven for players re-signing with their own clubs — another concession by the union — but in return they still want pay to vary by 10 percent annually rather than the NHL’s five percent offer. 

None of these reports are confirmed and the lack of leaks on both sides would seem to suggest that they are seriously trying to bridge the gap in order to start a 48-game season before Jan. 19. Other important items remain unsettled and one is the salary cap, which the owners want reduced to $60 million annually. The players have reportedly not agreed (and we discussed that provision earlier this week). Another is the size of escrow. Additionally, there are new concerns about the players’ pension plan, which had supposedly been agreed to earlier in the talks but may have been changed in the owners’ proposal. Pat Leonard of The New York Daily News has more on the pension issue here. There is some feeling among the players that ownership has reneged on this item.

There have been very few details on this round of talks, which is seen as a good sign because leaks usually mean discord. The players still had the option until midnight of disclaiming interest in the NHLPA through the union’s executive committee, the quick route to decertification that could throw the process into chaos, if they believe the owners are not negotiating in good faith. On Twitter, ESPN/ TSN’s Pierre LeBrun quoted a player saying, “How they respond to our latest proposal will determine if we disclaim or not.” Even though that option expires at the end of the day, the players could renew that initiative sometime in the future. More on this latest round of talks here from TSN.ca.

UPDATE: The union decided to hold off on the disclaimer. More on that fromTSN.ca.

If you are wondering why a sudden wave of sincerity has washed over the process, which is now beginning its sixth month, you are not alone. These latest talks — which have resulted in three proposals being swapped in six days (UPDATE: now four in seven days) — could and should have taken place months ago had there not been another agenda floating around besides that of getting a fair and equitable agreement.

Instead, the talks have had almost as many starts and stops as a Herb Brooks skating drill. On no fewer than eight occasions since late August, the owners unilaterally suspended negotiations, often for weeks at a time. Yes, the players have also stalled, especially at the outset when they were not prepared to begin negotiations until last summer, and then took a month to formulate a counter-offer to the owners’ first proposal that was so severe it was characterized by some as a “declaration of war.” But even during that month, the players kept the dialogue going largely with talks about secondary issues. During each subsequent stoppage, NHLPA Executive Director Don Fehr inevitably uttered words to the effect of, “We’d rather be talking. You can’t reach an agreement by not talking.”

So as Commissioner Gary Bettman summed up Tuesday’s talks to the media…

…it was more than mildly disconcerting to hear him say, “The fact that we’re involved in a continuous process is something that I’m glad to see.”

Excuse me, Mr. Commissioner, but it was your side that regularly halted any continuous process.

Now, the owners had their reasons for preventing talks from developing momentum. They were testing the players’ solidarity — and were hardly covert about it, often brazenly trying to subvert the union’s leadership by detaching the players from Fehr. That tactic had worked during the lost season of 2004-05, so why not try it again?

After a few attempts, however, it should have been obvious that the owners were fighting the current war by using tactics from the last. Like the Washington Capitals under Bruce Boudreau, tactical flexibility among the owners was in short supply and whatever intelligence the league had collected on the manner in which the NHLPA had reorganized was flawed. Don Fehr is unlike any foe the NHL owners have ever encountered, a fact that went unrecognized by whoever was driving the lockout bus. Eventually, they should have steered away from all their divide-and-conquer stalling tactics, each designed to make the players miss paychecks, weaken their resolve, and get them to accept proposals that were always portrayed as “the best we can do” when, in fact — as Fehr told his troops — there were always better offers waiting down the road after each intermission. The more the league schemed, the more unified the players became.

This was a major miscalculation by ownership, one of many in this lockout, and it revealed the bankruptcy of the National Hockey League’s preferred approach to labor relations: confrontation rather than negotiation. Even New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, concerned about the lockout’s impact on Newark, remarked about the NHL late last month, “When you can’t have a good relationship with your folks, your labor, three times in a row now, to the point where you lose most of or entire seasons, it reflects I think on management. I mean, listen, I worked it out with state workers, they come to work every day.”

Not in the NHL. Once again, no one comes to work but the lawyers. The owners’ methods have cost everyone connected with the game, including themselves, whatever might have been gained from the first three months of the season, both financially and in the court of public opinion. Only a half-year ago, the NHL was again being hailed as an up-and-coming success story — and we have heard that often in the past 45 years. Now, the league has reverted to its self-destructive nature, also a common theme during the past four-and-a-half decades.

Clearly, when this lockout ends, the time will have come for the owners to contemplate charting a new course in the way they deal with their players. No doubt the owners had some problems with this last CBA, but their way of fixing things doesn’t work. In his interesting story on Fehr for The San Jose Mercury News, David Pollak quoted former Major League Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent, who knows Fehr well and understands the need for the NHL to make that shift. Calling his dealings with Fehr “first-rate,” Vincent added, “The insight that everybody comes to ultimately is that without the players there is no game. And you can fight with them only so long because you can’t get along without them. If you ever want to have a game and you’re an owner, you have to give them their way.”

“Giving them their way,” may be too extreme a solution, but the NHL way — continual warfare — is a dead end. It may be hard for the NHL owners to find a less damaging approach, but they must. For all their talk of partnership over the years, they have always operated according to a very different standard, the one articulated by Red Wings vice president Jim Devellano during the interview last September that got his club fined $250,000: “The owners simply aren’t going to let a union push them around. It’s not going to happen.”

What shouldn’t happen is for the NHL to extend its antagonism toward the players any further. Even if this next CBA goes into effect for eight or 10 years, depending on how the final document is written, its conclusion should not be the excuse for yet another lockout, another suicidal chapter in the league’s history. It’s time to figure out how to turn the page on this nonsense, once and for all.

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  • Published On Jan 02, 2013
  • 14 comments
    Jim A
    Jim A

    As a Canadian who has attended NHL games in the US South, I can see that (with apologies to the handful of "real" hockey fans in the south) that it was never going to succeed south of the Mason-Dixon Line. It's one thing to have fans in the seats-it's another thing to have those fans paying full price for their tickets. How much of the Florida Panther playoff "Rat Patrol" was "paper"? My wife and I saw Buffalo play in Sunrise. Our seats were 20 rows up on the blueline (in Toronto, those tickers would cost at least $500 EACH). We paid $30-FOR BOTH! (honest!) We could have paid regular price (whatever that was) and received free tickets for the following game. The upper level at Sunrise was empty (and by "empty", I mean absolutely nobody, except for some ushers) and a lot of folks in the lower lever were wearing Sabres sweaters. The owners of teams in the south are saving money by not playing-they can schedule more concerts, tractor-pulls, whatever-while the season ticket holders in Canada are earning 5% on their deposits with the teams-so if a client comes to town, you take him/her out for dinner instead of a Leaf game and make money-even with an expensive bottle of wine!

     

    There's a reason that the NHL starts its season a month before the NBA-and it has nothing to do with ice conditions. When the NBA "Tipped Off", the 2012-13 hockey season was over...I may still be proven wrong, and the "real" hockey fans (as they will refer to themselves) will happily come waltzing back to see a 40 game "season",  but I'm a long-time NHL fan who no longer cares...and I'm not alone.

    therednorth1
    therednorth1

    You'd figure the fan anger would be real.  But when the NBA locked out their players last year for about as long as this NHL lockout, fan anger was pretty strong too and people made NBA jokes.  Guess what?  The moment they started playing again everyone forgot and started watching the games again.

     

    Which sucks, because the fans shouldn't be encouraging this behaviour from ownership.

    StevenSherman
    StevenSherman

    Even when they played a full season last year, the NHL continued to become less relevant in the sports world. Going into this lockout, they were already FAR behind the big three team sports (MLB, NBA, NFL) in terms of interset, and also paled in comparison to NASCAR, the UFC, and WWE. Even MLS has a contract with a major network (NBC) that the NHL is no longer able to secure. Given the lowly status of the NHL even before this year's lockout, I can't imagine that this year's circus will help much. While I am a big time fan of the sport of hockey, I've definitely survived this year without the greedy NHL owners and players. I can certainly get my hockey fix from the Ontario, American and East Coast leagues (at a fraction of the cost required for the privilege of watching the NHL).

    Thomas Baker
    Thomas Baker

    The League is 100% at fault and the NHLPA is completely blameless. But of course my sirs.

    Jonathan L
    Jonathan L

    Guaranteed the NHL, no matter when the games begin again, will have their typical pathetic "thank you fans" promotions like they did following the last strike.  How many still have those little replica Stanley Cups they handed out?

    GregWiens
    GregWiens

    The NHL done.  It has shot itself in the foot so badly this time, it will never recover in America.   

    cakasabian
    cakasabian

    When I was a kid (I'm 56) the NHL was as viable as MLB, NFL and NBA.  And pretty much held in the same regard as the other sports.  Not now.  Now it is clearly a second - or third - tier sport, akin to the WWF or XFL.  It's a shame, really, to have seen it fall so far from where it was.  Unless something very radical happens, I suspect the sport's glory days will never return.  The owners and players need damage control now - at a bare minimum they need to address the fans and explain how they're going to get back to being a sports league it's fans can be proud of, and they can start by respecting tradition and refusing to play some hokey short season to award the Cup.  Show a little pride NHL now that you've displayed your greed or you're going to lose everyone. 

    geeon1
    geeon1

    Mr. Hackel, the players are just as responsible for the lost wages and monies.

    My deadline has now passed for this nonsense. I will not attend a single game at Madison Square garden this season. A 52 or 48 game season is a farce and not worth playing. As you know I hand most of the blame to the players, Fehr being in charge is a disaster. That said the owners are not innocent either they smelled blood and went for more as any good negotiator should.

    MarkAlanParker
    MarkAlanParker

    Nobody cares anymore. The NHL has screwed themselves - an ultra-short (*) season won't matter to anybody, and I hope the stands are empty for this joke-of -a-season, should they decide to play. Fans should boycott all of it.

    geeon1
    geeon1

     @therednorth1 Eventually i will watch on TV but i will be damned if I actually go attend a game this season.

    rg1985
    rg1985

    Do some home work. The NHL signed a 10 year $2 Billion TV deal with NBC last year which takes effect this year. Even if this season is cancelled NBC still pays the NHL $200M and an extra year is added on to the conract at no charge, The 200M per year is more than triple of what the last TV contract was worth.  This deal includes 90 games on the NBC main network with games on thanksgiving, the winter classic, and the heritage classic PLUS they get first choice (over TSN and CBC) for playoff games.

    geeon1
    geeon1

     @GregWiens Those troubled teams will be even more in trouble after this disaster. Thus creating a similar situation for the owners that now will take 10 years to re-address.

    bg6081a
    bg6081a

     @GregWiens Even Plaxico Burress is laughing at the NHL...And the Jets are thankful that the NHL negotiations have surpassed them as the biggest circus in town.

    geeon1
    geeon1

    I agree 100%. This type season means a non-playoff caliber team might get hot enough to make the playoffs at the expense of a true playoff team. The younger teams will have a true advantage over an older team as they might not get as fatigued.  This shortened season will be a farce if played. As I said above to Mr. Hackel I will not be attending any games at Madison Square Garden nor the Rangers-Islanders Games at the Mausoleum. Family of 4 that usually goes to 15-25 games a season will attend NONE, ZERO, ZIP this season. The money I allocate for games has been re-allocated elsewhere. I really hope a NHL Player and Owner reads this, The players overplayed their hand failing miserably to realize that the owners pay for EVERYTHING they do. Ice, food, travel, equiptment, insurance,employees and god knows what else. This drains the Revenue from the owners, players fail to realize this. They just stick their hands out for more.....