(PhatzRadio / CBC Sports) — So what happened in hockey over the weekend? Well, 7,500 fans attended the red-hot Minnesota Wild’s prospects camp. A Pittsburgh Penguins’ Twitter feed thanked supporters as 6,000 fans showed up for theirs. Two weeks ago, the Columbus Blue Jackets drew 2,000 fans for a three-on-three scrimmage on a Saturday afternoon.
And in the midst of all this passion, the NHL fired a harsh, opening salvo at its players.
There are two ways to look at this development. First, that this is the beginning of an apocalyptic meltdown. We have seen the owners’ true face and it is Lord Voldemort. Second, that this is simply the start of the process.
Prior to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s volley, no formal proposal was offered by either side. According to a couple of sources, the previously “cordial’ discussions featured the NHL explaining why certain franchises were losing money, while the players focussed on “health and safety issues’ (benefits, pensions, etc.) important to them.
So Bettman decided to throw a goalpost onto the playing field and get things started.
Was it an effective strategy? We’ll have a better idea when discussions resume Wednesday. Two prominent agents, Allan Walsh and Ian Pulver, openly tweeted their disdain. Others privately laughed because the offer was so bad. One called it “a Christmas wish list.” Plus, it was only two pages long.
But it couldn’t have surprised NHL Players’ Association executive director Donald Fehr, who’s seen everything.
It’s difficult to take the NHL’s offer very seriously because it doesn’t really propose any solutions to the real problem — the huge disparity between the league’s strongest and weakest markets. For argument’s sake, let’s say the players actually agree to have their share dropped from 57 to 46 per cent. Well, if the league continues to send out press releases celebrating record growth and the Canadian dollar holds at current rates, how exactly are things going to get better for the poor sisters of the NHL world?
They won’t because the proposal contains zero revenue-sharing provisions. And my guess is Bettman and the owners want to see how Fehr is going to attack this issue. (This may actually be the commissioner’s biggest challenge. Some of the men who own low-revenue teams are worth more money than a five-time powerball winner. Bigger-market guys are going to balk at subsidizing them.)
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog about some of the key issues in this negotiation. Afterwards, a person I respect asked why I wrote so much about what the owners want and not so much about the players’ position.
My answer was simple: players don’t have anywhere near the same gripes with the system. Sure, they can’t stand the salary cap, but they know it isn’t going anywhere. Otherwise, a structure that was supposed to cripple their rewards has seen the average salary grow to its highest in history.
These guys aren’t stupid. They understand things could be a lot worse. Again, it’s my guess, but that’s probably why Fehr didn’t open with an economic proposal. Why bargain against yourself, especially if you’re not really unhappy with the way things are going?
If there’s one major difference between 2004 and 2012, it’s the communication within the NHLPA. Eight years ago, players were giving interviews the day before the cap arrived saying, “We’re never agreeing to a cap!”
According to several players, one of Fehr’s major points of emphasis is eliminating the mentality that every time there’s a new collective bargaining agreement, you must agree to give back something. He’s telling them that the salary lost since 2005 is now in the wealthy teams’ coffers and it’s up to the owners to fix, not the players.
That’s why it wouldn’t be incredibly surprising if the NHLPA doesn’t even offer a counter and maybe just say, “We’re not considering that. What else do you have?”
So where do we go from here?
I had an interesting chat over the weekend with an NHL executive who asked about my contract discussions with Hockey Night In Canada and The Score over the years. I’ve been pretty fortunate, with only one negotiation that could possibly be described as difficult.
He said to me, “You are what’s called a ‘consensual negotiator.’ You work to get a deal done quickly. (Note: This is true.) Most people aren’t like that, though, and especially not in these types of negotiations.”
That is also true and a couple other execs/agents I bounced that off totally agreed. As one said, ‘Hockey is sport ruled by deadlines. When do most trades happen? At the trade deadline. How many guys sign free-agent contracts before July 1? Not that many. The CBA doesn’t end until Sept. 15. It’s going to take time.”
That said, by refusing to throw the players a little something, Bettman gave ammunition to those players/agents/NHLPA employees who believe he desires to test the players’ resolve by forcing them to miss paycheques. No matter what he says publicly, he’ll never be able to convince this group his motives are anything close to pure.
They believe he was determined to shut down the season in 2004-05 to get the cap and will force them out once again to plug the unexpected leaks in the current CBA. Last Friday’s proposal swayed some more players into agreeing with that position.
There are hardliners on the NHL side, too. As one exec said, “Money is going to exit the system. It will happen the NFL way (with no games missed) or the NBA way (with players losing two months of paycheques). It’s up to them.”