As long as nobody on either negotiating committee drops a Skyfall spoiler, I expect good progress in the labour discussions this week, even if the reporting is more negative after a rough ol’ Sunday.

Tracking the various leaks the National Hockey League and the Players’ Association have sent out to media outlets is a tricky business. Everything got confusing Friday as various reports conflicted with the internal memo sent out by union boss Donald Fehr that was intercepted by NBC’s Pro Hockey Talk and TSN.

First, here’s an excerpt of that memo:

In addition, we received a revamped proposal covering players’ share and cap issues, their so-called “make whole”, and player contracting issues. The owners finally did formally give us their “make whole” idea, which in dollar terms is similar to the discussions Bill Daly had with Steve Fehr a few days ago. While a step forward, a significant gap remains. Moreover, at the same time we were told that the owners want an “immediate reset” to 50/50 (which would significantly reduce the salary cap) and that their proposals to restrict crucial individual contracting rights must be agreed to. As you know, these include – among other things – losing a year of salary arbitration eligibility, allowing the team to file for salary arbitration in any year that the player can file, extending UFA eligibility to age 28 or 8 seasons, limiting contracts to 5 years, and permitting only 5% year to year variability in player contracts. Individually each is bad for players; taken together they would significantly reduce a player’s bargaining power and give the owner much more leverage over a player for most if not all of his career.

Obviously, there’s some poor communication in there, probably because Donald Fehr doesn’t know how to properly paragraph. It could be argued that the NHLPA failed to relay the specifics of the proposal to players because it’s buried in a 190-word wall of text Michael Russo, a respected member of the PHWA and Minnesota Wild beat-writer for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, quoted some un-named sources in a story shooting down the Fehr memo and clarifying the NHL’s apparent proposal from last week:

The NHL was perplexed by a memo that NHLPA Executive Director Don Fehr sent his 725 constituents on Thursday night that stated there’s a “significant gap” between the two sides, according to multiple NHL sources close to the negotiations. 

The league feels the memo isn’t a fair portrayal of what the owners offered.

The league has been under the impression that the majority of players are ready to get back onto the ice if revenues are split 50/50 and all contracts are honored in full. Several players have told the Star Tribune that in recent days.

That’s exactly what the owners have offered the players, the sources say, something Fehr did not spell out in his memo.

The problem when media don’t disclose their sources is that it becomes tough to figure out what’s real and what’s just being sent out to the public in an effort to sway the opinion of lesser informed members of the PA not close to negotiations. Gary Bettman’s advantage in this game is that it’s easy to keep 30 (well, really 29) owners in line compared to Donald Fehr, who represents over 700 players.

This is why I’ve tried to stay away from all of what is being said in this dispute, I think that the majority of the talking is being done at the table, and the sides are much, much closer than they appear. In late November last year, during the midst of the NBA dispute, the final stages of the deal were negotiated mostly in smaller, lower key meetings.

Yet sources on both sides late Wednesday preached caution, noting that the talks have collapsed several times when a deal appeared to be within reach.

But one source close to the talks, referring to the aforementioned collapses, said Wednesday night: “Are the parties talking again? Yes. Have they done anything [significant]? No.”

That story is from ESPN the week that the deal was achieved. I wasn’t too familiar on the aspects of the deal, but Basketball-Related Income, or BRI, appeared to be the major issue going in but was agreed upon in the 50-50 range in an earlier stage of negotiating.

Gratuitous photograph of an overpaid hockey player with an unreasonable no-trade clause.

Again, action is the thing to focus on, not necessarily on what is being said. For sure, my original belief was that the Players would force the hand of the league to begin the season around the time of their television showcase event, as is what happened in the NBA. The Association got started on December 25 with five games, using a traditional TV day as a springboard for the season. If the NHL has had a single good idea for increasing exposure and generating a good chunk of revenue in the last 7 years, it’s via the Winter Classic.

That said, we’re skirting dangerous territory for another league showcase. Last season, the first game NBC broadcast was a game on Black Friday between Detroit and Boston, which earned “a respectable rating” of 1.0, Greg Wyshynski suggested, noting the challenge for the NHL to be accepted by a mainstream network TV audience “without the benefit of gimmickry”.

Black Friday isn’t normally a sports watching day, or nothing that I associate it with, so props to the NHL for trying to schedule a matinee in there. This season, the game was slated to be between the New York Rangers and the Boston Bruins, and if the sides are closer than they’re making out, I think it’s possible a game that date (Nov. 23) can be salvaged to appease sponsors and the TV execs.

Calling players back to camp would probably take less time than the NBA, since the NBA locked out its players at the beginning of summer while the NHL still had an extra two months to build teams. Most of them are complete, but you may insert your own joke here about the Edmonton Oilers or the Detroit Red Wings. In 1995, the league began just nine days after signing the deal, and booting up a season in an indoor arena is a lot smoother logistically than opening up a season outdoors nine days after. It sucks the NHL will lose it’s signature regular season game, but they’ll get over it.

Pay attention to what is being done, not necessarily what is being said, and you may notice just how close the sides have come recently. We’re entering a phase where the landscape is beginning to shift—the games that are going to be cancelled are a little more important. Basically, Donald Fehr and Gary Bettman are no longer playing with table stakes.

Comments (2)

  1. Did you just say that you believe the NHL can finish negotiations, get guys into camp, and play a game all in 11 days from now?

    I like your optimism, but that thought is in a different realm. One covered by the DSM-IV.

    • It’s feasible. Not saying it’s likely, but it’s feasible.

      That said, I’m not putting any money on it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *