Guarded optimism is the best way to describe both sides’ feeling toward Tuesday’s resumption of bargaining in the NHL lockout.
The leaders of the NHL owners and of the NHL Players’ Association remained quiet on Monday, which many took as a good sign. One of the people who will be sitting at the table for the first negotiating sessions since Oct. 18 said in an e-mail message he would not predict the chances of reaching a new collective agreement until the end of Tuesday’s session.
Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby spoke for everyone when he said this round of talks will be the last chance to save a full 82-game season.
“It’s definitely an important time, considering the timing of everything, knowing in the back of our minds that it’s probably the last chance to get anything close to a full season,” Crosby told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after a group of Penguins players skated Monday.
Unlike the players, the owners and managers are under orders from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman not to discuss publicly anything concerned with the owners’ second lockout in seven years. But those willing to talk on background were also hopeful a full season could be saved as long as an agreement is reached quickly.
While Crosby’s hope for a full season or something close is based on the assumption no games will be played past the end of June, one NHL governor says the league should consider holding the Stanley Cup final in July for one time only if it means playing an 82-game season.
His rationale is simple: The only way a deal gets done is if the players receive the full value of the contracts they signed before the Sept. 15 lockout, even after they split league revenue 50-50 with the owners. The only way to do that is play all 82 games to maximize revenue.
“Now is the time to make a deal,” the governor said. “Make a deal this week and you can come close to playing 82 games. Maybe you can play 82. Why not, for just this year? If you have to play the finals in July, play it.”
The governor said Bettman has said the highest number of games that can be played between Dec. 1 and the usual end of the regular season around April 10 is 70. Only one game can be picked up by the cancellation of the Winter Classic but if the all-star game and the break around it is cancelled, too, a couple more games can be picked up. And if there is an agreement quickly and the regular season can start in mid-November or a bit later, then several more games can be played.
“You have to make the players whole, that’s the centrepiece of this whole deal, and the best way to do that is play 82 games,” the governor said. “That’s what they’ve got to be talking about this week.”
Making the players whole is the new catch-phrase of the labour talks. Once the NHLPA admitted on Oct. 18 in its three counter-proposals to the owners’ last offer it was willing to consider sharing hockey-related revenue (HRR) 50-50, down from a 57-43 split in favour of the players in the previous agreement, the union’s major issue was ensuring the players are paid in full for all existing contracts.
In its last offer, the NHL owners wanted to do this by reducing the players’ share in the later years of a new agreement. But Tuesday’s talks in New York were spurred when Bettman told the union the owners were willing to shoulder at least some of the responsibility for paying the contracts in full, although it may still take several years.
The union was interested enough to agree to resume bargaining but NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr cautioned the players all of the details of the NHL’s proposal are not known yet.
At this point, players are telling the union leadership they would like to see a deal reached but not at any cost. The unidentified governor says the players need to keep pushing their negotiators and even though the players and owners remain far apart on many issues aside from the revenue split, such as contract length, free agency and salary arbitration, if they can agree on the two major issues and get playing, the rest can be worked out later.
“Let’s not get caught up in all that,” said the governor, who is a moderate. “How many guys actually go to arbitration? Practically none.
“We’ve got to get the players their money, we’ve got to get the right [revenue] split. But we’ve got to get back to playing and growing the game.”