Anger is the only word that describes the state of the NHL right now.
The players are angry NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s proposal for reviving the dead labour negotiations was a two-week vacation. The owners and a lot of their general managers are angry at NHL Players’ Association executive director Donald Fehr, whom they accuse of not wanting a new collective agreement. Both men were the subjects of some nasty name-calling on Friday, as word of Bettman’s suggestion spread.
And the fans are angry with both sides, taking to social media, web sites and the radio call-in shows to say, essentially, “a pox on both their houses.”
Only Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman John-Michael Liles was able to add a little humour, although he was just as unhappy as his colleagues that Bettman wanted to take a break from even trying to negotiate.
“No, Gary, you can’t have [two weeks] off to go to Hawaii and bodysurf,” Liles posted on his Twitter account Friday afternoon.
A tweet from Edmonton Oilers defenceman Ryan Whitney conveyed more of the anger many players were feeling: “So the NHL wants to take a [two-week] break from negotiating. Not even just [one], let’s take [two]. Makes sense. What’s the rush? ... WTF?!”
There was some contact between the sides Friday, as NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly and NHLPA special counsel Steve Fehr had a brief telephone conversation. But no meetings are scheduled and Friday night marked one week since the owners and players broke off their last lengthy bargaining session with an exchange of harsh words.
Daly, who said Thursday he was more discouraged with the state of the labour dispute than at any other point, was not as bleak Friday. Then again, it was only by comparison, as the most positive thing he could say was that personal rancour had not taken over among the negotiators.
“I think what you have seen is disappointment with where we find ourselves in the process,” Daly said. “I don’t think it’s a case of personal animosity.”
Conversations with people on both sides of this impasse Friday showed the mood to be so bleak as to be reminiscent of the many low points of the 2004-05 lockout, when the entire season was lost. Where there were always optimists on both sides until this week, now there are many who think this season could be lost as well.
Even though Bettman did not officially cancel the 2004-05 season until Feb. 16, 2005, the owners and GMs consulted think it could happen sooner this time. Those who hoped a full 82-game season could be squeezed out of a late November start are now fretting even a season of 68 games or fewer is in jeopardy.
What also emerged from both sides were questions about how much support Fehr and Bettman actually have from their constituencies. However, no players or owners expressed doubt about their own leadership.
Indeed, Bettman angered several owners with his last offer. But the owners, who are prevented from speaking publicly by a gag order imposed by the commissioner, remain behind him. Bettman was told by some owners that his offer, which was rejected by the players, of a 50-50 split of league revenue with the owners putting at least $215-million (all currency U.S.) toward eventually paying existing player contracts in full, went too far.
Two owners described that offer as Bettman’s best and final shot at making a deal. They say they need all of the things demanded in that deal, from five-year limits on contracts (one argument is owners cannot insure player contracts for more than five years) to limiting the yearly salary increases to raising the age of free agency in addition to cutting the players’ share of NHL revenue to 50 per cent from 57.
One owner said he is willing to risk cancelling the season rather than sign what he considers a bad collective agreement. He is well aware he is losing fans every day, the owner said, but simply cannot agree to a deal he thinks would make it impossible for him to turn a profit.
At this point, there is no indication when talks will resume, hence the gloom around the league. Donald Fehr told Hockey Night In Canada Radio his response to Bettman’s suggestion of a two-week break was, “I didn’t think that was a good idea.” He also said, “we’ve been prepared to meet every day.”
However, Fehr also rejected the notion put forward by the owners, that they have made lots of concessions thus far and the players are being unreasonable.
“The only way the owners have made a concession is if you treat seriously their notion we made a first proposal which was horrible, terrible and miserable,” Fehr said, “and our second proposal was only horrible and terrible so we moved in your direction.”