If anything is to develop from the latest attempt to end the NHL lockout, movement will have to come from the owners on economics and the players on contracts.
That was the expectation Monday night, as a delegation of 18 players accompanied NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr and the union negotiating team into NHL head office in New York to sit down with commissioner Gary Bettman, deputy commissioner Bill Daly, several owners and at least one general manager (Brian Burke of the Toronto Maple Leafs).
The meeting lasted less than two hours, and representatives will reportedly sit down again Tuesday morning, seeking further talks.
A new offer from the players did not appear to be in the cards, but there was a sense they might be willing to continue talking this week if the owners respond favourably to any sign of flexibility.
The economic issues are practically ingrained in anyone who is following this labour dispute, which is now mired in name-calling on both sides.
The owners want the players to cut their share of hockey related revenue to 50 per cent in the new collective agreement from 57 per cent in the old one – and they want them to do it immediately. The owners also aren’t willing to simply pay 100 per cent of the contracts signed under the old agreement.
Those issues are still big problems, but once the players agreed in principle to a 50-50 split at some point in a new deal, the negotiating switched to how this would be done.
Now, contract rights are the biggest sticking point.
The owners want to impose a five-year limit on contracts, restrict yearly raises, increase the length of time for a player to become an unrestricted free agent, limit salary arbitration and reduce the length of entry-level contracts.
The players are opposed to all of those moves, as they would work to keep salaries down.
As always in professional sport labour negotiations, the driving force is to protect the owners from themselves and from their more rapacious peers. This is why the matter of front-loaded contracts (or back-diving if you prefer the wooden corporate jargon of Bettman and Daly) is now at the top of the list.
Limiting contract length is an obvious way to prevent huge front-loaded contracts wealthy owners have used to get around the salary cap. So is putting a limit on annual salary increases.
But these deals have consequences for the less-wealthy – as illustrated by brouhaha last summer over Nashville Predators defenceman Shea Weber.
When Weber became a restricted free agent on July 1, Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider gave him an offer sheet for a 14-year, front-loaded contract worth a total of $110-million (U.S.). It was set up so Weber’s actual salary in each of the first four years was $1-million, with an annual signing bonus of $13-million. (The bonus is paid even if there is a lockout.)
In the first four years of the contract, Weber will receive $56-million, minus any of the $4-million in salary lost to a lockout.
In the eyes of the NHL salary cap, Weber’s salary is $14-million for the first four years, but since the contract runs for 14 years, his cap hit is a much more palatable $7.857-million.
Great for Weber, who gets most of his money lockout or no lockout. Great for the Flyers, who are rich enough to cough up the $56-million. Not so great for the Predators, as Snider well-knew when he dropped the offer sheet on them, forcing them to match the offer or lose the best defenceman in the league.
The Predators operate with the thinnest of profit margins, aided by subsidies from the City of Nashville and the limited revenue-sharing among NHL teams.
But the Preds reluctantly matched the offer because they had already lost their second-best defenceman, Ryan Suter, to a similar contract.
Now, they have sent a $13-million cheque Weber’s way with no gate receipts to help cover it and no end to the lockout in sight.