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NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks to reporters after a negotiation session between the league and the NHL Players' Association, Wednesday, July 18, 2012, in New York. (Jason DeCrow/AP)
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks to reporters after a negotiation session between the league and the NHL Players' Association, Wednesday, July 18, 2012, in New York. (Jason DeCrow/AP)

DAVID SHOALTS

NHL, union taking different routes Add to ...

When the players and owners wrapped up another session of labour talks on Monday, National Hockey League Players’ Association executive director Donald Fehr said his group will present “an alternative view” on Tuesday.

This was in reference to the long-awaited counter to the opening offer made by the owners almost a month ago. But no one should make the mistake of viewing this as what might normally be considered a counterproposal in negotiations for a new collective agreement.

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While the players are carefully keeping the details of their presentation secret, the broad strokes are not. They see the solution to the NHL’s economic woes as greater revenue sharing among its 30 teams. What will be presented to the owners Tuesday in Toronto will be ways they can share a much greater portion of the $3.3-billion (all currency U.S.) in revenue the league pulled in during the 2011-12 season so the poorest teams can finally worry more about making the playoffs than making their mortgage payments.

But this does not mean any serious bargaining on a new agreement to replace the one that expires Sept. 15 is under way. It just means each side has finally stated its philosophy about a solution.

If Fehr and the players share any of the details after Tuesday’s presentation, it also means the rest of us get to see just how far apart the two sides are. Do not be surprised if it shows Fehr’s remark last week of a “meaningful gulf” sounds optimistic.

The owners see any solution as coming strictly out of the pockets of the players. They want to reduce not only the players’ share of the hockey-related revenue (HRR) from 57 per cent to 46 per cent but to exclude enough revenue from HRR to further shrink their share to 43 per cent. They also want to increase the eligibility of unrestricted free agency to 10 years, eliminate salary arbitration and limit contract to five years.

Those would be the same owners who were handing out deals last month for 10-plus years and more than $100-million. Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold, for example, went from giving 13-year, $98-million contracts to Zach Parise and Ryan Suter one day to sitting at the table a few days later when the owners demanded Parise, Suter and the rest of the players take a 24-per-cent cut to those salaries.

This sounds outrageous and hypocritical to be sure but try and look at things from their perspective. They rolled over the NHLPA in the 2004-05 lockout and forced players to accept a hard salary cap and a 24-per-cent cut to those salaries. And it cost NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow his job, which thrilled more than a few owners.

That is why NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s salary went from $3.7-million in 2005 to just shy of $8-million today. Sports commissioners are paid big bonuses for three things – a good labour agreement in the eyes of the owners, a good television agreement and expansion fees. The head of a union leader on a pike is pure gravy.

So as long as your curve ball is getting the opposition out, you keep throwing it. Even if the opposition signs a star free agent such as Fehr.

The trouble for the fans is that this time around it looks like Fehr has the players educated and committed enough to hang in there long enough to hit that curve and throw a few of their own.

That is why Tuesday’s presentation is not a counteroffer in the traditional sense of the word. It will be a series of suggestions on a new way of doing things. When he was asked last month if the players were willing to suggest dropping the salary cap for a new system, such as one based on a luxury tax for big spenders and greater revenue sharing, Fehr did not hesitate to say yes, if the players think it is needed.

A look around the league shows some radical thinking is certainly necessary. The Phoenix Coyotes are headed toward their fourth season as a ward of the state while yet another would-be owner roots around his chesterfield cushions for enough spare change to cover the purchase price. The New Jersey Devils are not facing foreclosure right now only because owner Jeff Vanderbeek’s bankers think it would be more trouble than carrying him until they get a look at a new collective agreement before deciding if he ever has a chance to pay them off.

But with one month from Wednesday left until the collective agreement expires, the only thing the owners are willing to do is make a grab for the players’ piece of the pie.

 

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