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Donald Fehr, Executive Director of the NHLPA speaks to the press following collective bargaining talks in Toronto on Tuesday, October 16, 2012. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Donald Fehr, Executive Director of the NHLPA speaks to the press following collective bargaining talks in Toronto on Tuesday, October 16, 2012. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Mood swings happen often in NHL labour discussions Add to ...

In the context of what many think could be a breakthrough in the NHL labour impasse, here is a short history lesson from the 10-day 1991-92 NHL players strike, designed to mute expectations - a little anyway.

The negotiators back then were Bob Goodenow for the players and John Ziegler for the owners. A couple of days in, Ziegler called a press conference and essentially said, ‘we capitulate, you win, here is our offer, it should be everything you want.” He talked about gold-plated dental plans, just bizarre stuff. But optimism swelled because it looked as if the league had surrendered. It was just assumed the strike was over. Hours later, Goodenow came back and rejected the NHL's proposal out of hand. The air leaked out of the balloon fast.

Mood swings like that happen all the time in NHL labour discussions, especially on the days when NHL labour discussions spill into the public eye. So on Tuesday, when the NHL made what appears to be a significant step towards resolving a lockout that has lasted a month and a day, my advice is: Wait.

Wait for now before getting your hopes too high.

Wait until the NHL players association digests the details of the offer - a 50/50 revenue split, a four-year entry-level system, eight years before a player achieves free agency - before you convince yourself this is a real breakthrough moment.

It is easy to jump the gun in these situations. For proof, consider the events of December, 2004, when the NHLPA offered a 24 per cent rollback that felt as if it should get a deal done. It didn’t. Instead, the two sides were still bickering two months later and then the season was eventually cancelled.

The inherent problem right now is how difficult it is to predict how NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr will interpret the new offer to the 60 or so players that he conference with later in the day. Just about every player willing to discuss the issue, publicly or privately, has told me that 50/50 is a split they can live with. Some want to see that 50/50 split introduced progressively rather than right away, but they know deep down, this is where the process is going.

If an agreement can be reached off the newest NHL proposal, then the 82-game season is preserved; and the only money the players will lose is what would be clawed back in escrow. The players don’t like the escrow system much, but they’re used to it - and just this past Monday, they got almost all of their escrow money for the 2011-12 season returned.

Who knows? If revenues go through the roof next year - and they could, depending upon the value of the next Canadian television contract - maybe that will happen again. That’s something Fehr and the players need to discuss on the conference call today - the trade-off between accepting an owners’ offer that isn’t everything they want it to be and the potential damage to the industry that a lengthy lockout can do.

Look at it strictly through the prism of TV revenues, past, present and future. Few would have forecast, even 24 months ago, that NBC would step up and offer $2-billion over 10 years for the U.S. TV rights. Suddenly, U.S. TV rights are worth more than Canadian. But that isn’t going to last forever, because when the Canadian contracts come due at the end of the year, there is talk that CTV/TSN will offer huge sums to re-up - and the CBC will be in there pitching as well. The point is, these numbers could go through the roof - but they could also be imperilled by a cancelled or shortened season.

So at some point, a compromise needs to be achieved - and a compromise that more or less preserves the industry without any significant damage should be the goal of both sides here.

Fehr’s strategy will, in large part, determine what happens next. As much as he says he works for the players, you can be sure that the players will ask Fehr for direction and likely follow his recommendations. He will, of course, reject the new NHL proposal as offered. It will need to be tweaked; and commissioner Gary Bettman - experienced negotiator that he is - gets that. He’s left himself some small wiggle room, because face-saving is almost as important as saving the season at this stage. But if it is tweaked within the context of the NHL model, then there is a chance that Tuesday’s offer by the league might get the two sides unstuck.

History tells me the general rule of thumb today should be pessimism. I hope I’m wrong.

Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

 

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