NHL lockout

Beyond the smoke and noise, real disputes slowly getting solved

The Globe and Mail

National Hockey League (NHL) Commissioner Gary Bettman gestures in front of NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly (L) as he describes negotiations between the NHL and the NHL Players Association regarding the difficulties of their current labour talks in New York, December 6, 2012. The National Hockey League Players' Association (NHLPA) said the league rejected its latest offer on Thursday as labor talks aimed at ending the lockout unexpectedly broke off on Thursday. (LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS)

Negotiating, done well, is a messy, noisy exercise, its grubbier component parts include subtle and not-so-subtle pressure, bellicose name-calling and overwrought acting.

By that standard, the NHL’s bargaining is a master class.

But is the process actually working? Will there be a 2012-13 hockey season under the Christmas tree?

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The answer is: probably not, but it’s complicated and things aren’t necessarily as dire as they seem.

Recall, if you will, when the mad-as-hell NHL commissioner, Gary Bettman, stepped up to the podium, raged against the cupidity of the NHL Players’ Association leadership and darkly announced the league’s latest, best, and most generous offer was officially off the table.

That was Thursday. But the same thing happened Oct. 18.

And the offer back then – centred on a 50-50 revenue split and the drearily named make-whole provision – was withdrawn for all of about a week.

Back-channel discussions swiftly resumed, six weeks later no one’s arguing about 50-50 anymore, and they’re barely squabbling over make-whole.

Now the battleground has shifted to contracting rights, and oh what a skirmish it was in Manhattan this week.

There were purple faces, fingers jabbed into chests, zany plot twists aplenty – the podium even got its own Twitter account.

But let’s face it, there’s more heat than light being generated here, and past practice suggests it’s worthwhile to look beyond the tactics and verbal thunder.

The same way the mid-October eruption was progress disguised as a setback, the fact the parties are now arguing modalities rather than philosophy – ie., they’re talking not about whether to limit contracts, but how long a limit to stick on them – can plausibly be analyzed as a step forward.

So where does the puck bounce from here?

The air war will surely ramp up; you may soon hear ownership sources saying the players should be allowed to vote on their proposal, that the union leadership – chiefly, executive director Donald Fehr and his brother Steve – is irresponsibly leading the members astray.

Likewise, sources from the players’ side may emerge in the next few days to say a vote should and will take place on decertifying the union and plunging a $3.3-billion enterprise into legal terra incognita.

Some dissenting voices may pipe up, much speculation will ensue on what that says about solidarity.

No new talks are scheduled, and deputy NHL commissioner Bill Daly famously declared a proposed contract limit of five years is “the hill we will die on.”

Okay, then.

Seeing as the last hill – the revenue split – now has an owners’ flag flapping atop it, the league needs a new strategic objective, and limiting player income by restricting contract lengths has a certain logic to it.

But as a union source said “are we really going to drive over the cliff for this?”

The league isn’t inclined to make any new concessions, but the general sense from the ownership side is they would rather not speed off the cliff.

The gap, after all, is narrowing: the NHL is demanding a maximum five-year term with no more than a five per cent variance between years, the players have countered with eight and their own, less punitive, proposal to attenuate so-called ‘back-diving’ contracts.

Management originally wanted a five- or six-year labour pact. The union countered with a proposal for four, and later signalled it would accept five.

Now the league insists on 10 years, and the union countered with eight (both proposals contain opt-out provisions for the final two years, similar to the last contract).

These should not be insurmountable differences.

It’s farcical for Bettman to claim Don Fehr was being deliberately misleading when he suggested on Thursday a deal is at hand.

Of course it is, it’s just that the NHLPA isn’t willing to swallow the owners’ proposal whole.

Which brings us to why.

Boundaries on contracting – even if they’re more modest than the full-bore demands of two months ago regarding free agency, arbitration rights and entry-level deals – are toxic to the union for a simple reason: cap-defeating long-term deals are the high tide that floats all vessels in a hard-cap system.

As one NHLPA insider put it: “The NHL would turn into the NBA, where a few guys make the maximum and everyone else is making peanuts. We’re not going to have much of a union if there’s no middle class.”

And yet, they’re accepting it – to a point.

The players, who have already yielded on revenues, just don’t see why they should also have to accept stricter contract rules – with comparatively little in return.

There’s a sense on the NHLPA side the plan all along for the owners was to recoup the cash they were seeking via prorated salaries – Bettman’s assertion the NHL needs to play at least 48 games this year, suggesting a January start, will merely feed it.

The other theory is the owners are trying to shove Fehr out of the picture – if you want to handicap their chances, pick a player at random and check him out in the social-media environment of your choice (spoiler alert: they still love Fehr).

The owners, for their part, clearly consider they’ve gone above and beyond all reasonable efforts – even going so far as to temporarily remove Bettman from the equation last week.

It makes sense, from their standpoint, to crank up the pressure on the union, winning on points is less satisfying than a knockout.

So will the union decertify? Maybe. Is this the final impasse? Doubtful.

At some point someone is going to have to take yes for an answer.

Follow on Twitter: @MrSeanGordon

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