The key to ending the NHL lockout slipped into place at 2 a.m. last Sunday, when Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan sat down with NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly and Bob Batterman, the league’s outside counsel and chief labour strategist, in a board room at the NHL’s headquarters in New York.
Twelve and a half hours earlier, the owners and players resumed face-to-face negotiations under the encouragement of U.S. federal mediator Scot Beckenbaugh. But there was still almost no progress.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners remained adamant the salary cap in the second year of a new collective agreement could not be more than $60-million (all currency U.S.). This reflected the 50-50 split in league revenue the players and owners agreed to months earlier. But the players wanted a more gradual move to the lower salary cap and were holding out for $64.3-million, the same as the 2011-12 cap, after starting at $70-million.
The other major issue for the owners was the variance in salary from year-to-year in multiyear contracts. As part of their war against the front-loaded contracts that lessened the effect of the salary cap, the owners wanted to limit the difference in annual compensation to no more than 35 per cent from one year to the next and one year’s salary could not be any less than 50 per cent of the highest year.
By the time Doan sat down with Daly and Batterman, the owners had grudgingly raised their offer to $62.5-million, less than $2-million away from the players.
It was a tiny gap to be sure but neither side was willing to budge. Also in the room were players George Parros and Ron Hainsey and four NHLPA staffers including special counsel Steve Fehr. Daly and Batterman were flanked by a couple more NHL lawyers. It looked like the negotiations would stall. But one hour later, after Doan explained why the players could not move from their number, his sincerity won over Daly and Batterman. It was the key breakthrough and the remaining major issues were worked through in a couple of hours. By 5 a.m., the players and owners had a tentative agreement on a new labour deal. The 113-day lockout was over.
What follows is a timeline of the major events that led to the agreement, including how Doan was able to persuade the hard-nosed NHL negotiators this was about more than money.
Wednesday, Jan. 2, 6 p.m.
The 30 members of the NHL Players’ Association’s executive committee took part in a conference call with NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, his brother Steve and the non-playing members of the negotiating team. They were to decide if the union would use its disclaimer of interest, granted in a vote by the NHL’s 740 players, against the owners.
This gave the NHLPA the right to notify the NHL it intended to dissolve, which would clear the way for an anti-trust lawsuit against the owners in a bid to end the lockout. The deadline to use the disclaimer was midnight.
The players reviewed the legal advice they were given about the disclaimer. Their lawyers said even if they did not use the disclaimer by midnight, and had to take another player vote to get another disclaimer to use several days later, it would not affect their chances in court.
A decision was made to use the disclaimer if it became apparent the owners were not moving in the negotiations. The call on using it was left solely up to Donald Fehr because talks were expected to go up to and past the deadline, leaving no time for consulting the 30-man executive.
Wednesday, Jan. 2, 8 p.m.
The full negotiating teams met at the NHL’s head office. As was the practice in these negotiations, one side presented the other with a new proposal. This time it was the NHL, which handed over a new summary and a new version of the 288-page offer it made late the previous week, the one that re-started the negotiations after they broke off Dec. 13.
But in that summary and offer were some changes in the language concerning punishment for teams that failed to report hockey-related revenue (HRR). The changes would lead to a day of nasty exchanges through the media.
Beckenbaugh was also back in the talks at the invitation of both sides.
Wednesday, Jan. 2, 11:30 p.m.
Fehr made a quick consultation with the players taking part in the negotiations, Doan, Hainsey, Parros, Brad Boyes, Craig Adams, Chris Campoli, Mathieu Darche, Rick DiPietro, Andrew Ference, Martin St. Louis and Kevin Westgarth. They agreed negotiations, although slow, were moving enough to refrain from issuing the disclaimer to Bettman.
Once the owners no longer faced the threat of an anti-trust suit, negotiations broke down. The owners would not budge from their demand of a $60-million salary cap in the second year and salary variance.
At one point, Bettman angered the players by talking about how teams would gladly unload players if they had to have a $64.3-million cap. By 12:30 a.m. Thursday both sides called it quits.
Donald Fehr and Bettman walked into the NHL cafeteria that served as a makeshift media room. Fehr was the first to speak to the reporters and seemed dispirited while Bettman was a little upbeat. Usually, it was the other way around. Neither man told the reporters talks had broken off and Beckenbaugh was asked to come back and see if he could get things moving.
Thursday, Jan. 3, 10 a.m.
By this time, the players let it be known to reporters there was a problem with the HRR language. There was no longer any mention of sanctions for teams trying to evade reporting all of their HRR.
Accusations were made through favoured reporters by both sides, although no harsh words were exchanged face-to-face.
By the afternoon, Beckenbaugh sorted out the dispute and the original language was restored to the document. But it damaged the already woeful lack of trust between the sides.
There would be no full negotiating sessions for the next two days, just smaller meetings between the mediator and various committees for each side. Beckenbaugh provided the only action, giving bored television camera operators something to shoot as he walked the four blocks back and forth from the NHL offices to the union’s hotel.
Saturday, Jan. 5, 1:30 p.m.
The painfully slow group meetings produced enough progress, if that is the right word, that Beckenbaugh decided they should resume meeting face-to-face. But there were still no sessions with the full negotiating teams from each side, with Bettman and Fehr in the room together, nor would there be for the rest of the 16-hour session that resulted in the agreement.
Sunday, Jan. 6, 2 a.m.
By the time Doan sat down for the key meeting, the owners had increased their offer for a second-year salary cap to $62.5-million but swore they could go no further. The players were just as resolute at $64.3-million.
Then Doan went to work. He told Daly and Batterman it was not about the money. The players already knew that even at $64.3-million their contracts, signed when they received 57 per cent of HRR rather than 50, would be clipped by escrow payments in the cap system.
Rather, it was about family. A difference of less than $2-million in a 2013-14 salary cap may not seem like much but $1.8-million multiplied by 30 teams was $54-million. In a league where the median salary is $1.4-million, which means 370 of 740 players earn that much or less, that $54-million remaining available for teams to spend means a lot.
It would mean, Doan said, teams could re-sign more players. That means fewer families disrupted by moves to another city. If even two players per team could be saved, that would be 60 families left undisturbed. It was a huge issue for the players.
Within an hour, Daly and Batterman were convinced. They agreed on behalf of the owners to a cap of $64.3-million.
Since both sides already had a good idea where each stood on the other issues – salary variance, term limits on contracts, the length of a collective agreement and player pensions – over the next two hours they were settled. By 5:30 a.m., Fehr and Bettman appeared together before the media to announce an agreement.
The players felt Doan did important work but they thought something else just as important was at work. There was a feeling Bettman was under increasing pressure from some owners, sponsors and the NBC television network to make sure the season was not lost. By the early hours of Jan. 6, the players thought, Bettman and the owners felt they were running out of time to get a deal to save a 48-game season, so they decided to move.