One of the many oddities in the stalemate pitting the NHL’s owners against its players is that each side seems impervious to the other’s message.
So who are they talking to?
Their constituents, presumably. Perhaps the media, or fans, the one group not inoculated against negotiation histrionics. The fans will surely be freaking out over the league’s decision to scrap all games up to Nov. 30.
If that describes your reaction, here’s some advice: relax.
There will come a point when it makes no sense, financial or otherwise, for the parties in this dispute to keep arguing, and beyond which irrationality becomes entrenched. But it hasn’t arrived, not yet.
Maybe they’ll blow through that point and a season will be lost. With the growing enmity being voiced, particularly by some players, it surely sounds possible. (Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres has been vocal in denouncing the league and commissioner Gary Bettman. A peeved Martin St. Louis of the Tampa Bay Lightning told NHL Home Ice’s Josh Rimer on Friday: “Way to go, Gary, you really care about the game.”)
More free advice: don’t bet on a repeat of 2004.
As The Globe and Mail’s James Mirtle has pointed out, the league and the players are far closer in their demands than the inflamed rhetoric suggests. The argument could be about as little as an average $60 million (all currency U.S.) per year over the life of a five-year collective agreement.
In a negotiation involving a $3.3-billion operation, it shouldn’t be enough of a gap to torpedo a season.
Bill Daly, the NHL’s deputy commissioner, and Don Fehr, the NHLPA’s executive director, struck mournful poses on Friday.
“The National Hockey League deeply regrets having to take this action,” Daly said in a statement released by the league.
Fehr said the announcement “is deeply disappointing for all hockey fans and everyone who makes their living from hockey … but it comes as no surprise.”
Fehr also laid the blame for the stalemate at the feet of the owners, saying: “They have shown they are very good at delivering deadlines and demands, but we need a willing partner to negotiate. We hope they return to the table.”
They surely will, but it’s good for the league if there is a sense of doom over the coming season. The NHL knows there are players who fear for their future and don’t want to lose a season’s salary.
Just as it’s helpful to the players if people think this is all the owners’ fault, and that it’s outrageous that their grasping employers want to roll back contracts, including the ones they just agreed to, the players would be crazy to accept a deal just for the sake of a settlement.
And that’s really where we are: The sides don’t want any deal, they still want their deal.
The NHL as an industry has shown a propensity for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, particularly when it comes to labour relations. If there is a sport that can blow up a rational expectations model, it is hockey.
But these are not stupid people.
They’re going to prod the other’s defences, they’re going to try to get the other guy off his game. Neither really expects the other to cave, but ultimately they will solve the dispute when the interests come into alignment.
Despite appearances, that’s happening. After all, the two sides are now working on the assumption that the final revenue split will be 50-50.
And if the league is counting on the fact that in a month’s time the players will have given up enough salary in lost games to effectively give the owners the financial concessions they were after, the players know that the owners aren’t keen to pile up forgone profits.
There is a point of diminishing returns for both sides. For the players it’s where lost salary and cancelled games outweigh the concessions the league wants at the table. For the league it’s where showcases like the Winter Classic are sacrificed and commercial relationships strained, and where lost profits outweigh the money saved by not paying salaries.
The league has yet to cancel the Winter Classic and All-Star Game, and it would have sent a sterner message to wipe the schedule clean all the way to Christmas. But the league didn’t.
“We acknowledge and accept that there is joint responsibility in collective bargaining and, though we are profoundly disappointed that a new agreement has not been attained to this point, we remain committed to achieving an agreement that is fair for the Players and the Clubs, one that will be good for the game and our fans,” Daly said.
The NHL is clearly testing the players’ commitment to their cause.
Expect the players to test the league’s commitment to finding a way out of the cul-de-sac.