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NHL lockout fight still in the middle rounds

The NHL and its players union have resumed talks.


Huzzahs all around, the NHL has blinked! A deal has to be near! We'll all be booing bad calls and opposing goalies in no time!

Well, not so fast.

Yes, the owners have made a new proposal that nudges the peanut forward, no question, and instantly injects a dose of optimism into the negotiations.

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It even suggests a deal is there to be had in the next few days - at very least the respective positions are now mountain-stream clear.

But here's the inconvenient thing: the offer is not really that far off the first-year offer of the NHL's last proposal in terms of the revenue split, which was 49 per cent.

The players have no objection to reducing their percentage share of revenues over the life of a new CBA to get to the owners' objective of 50-50, but if there is one point on which they will not retreat, it's keeping 100 per cent of the value of their current contracts (roughly speaking, a third of the league's players are under contract beyond this season).

And that's why this is far from done.

Under the current 57-43 split, the players kept $1.88-billion of the league's record $3.3-billion revenue haul last year.

My math skills are a little iffy, but in order for the players to keep that amount of money for the upcoming season (ie., preserve 100 per cent of present-value salaries moving forward) would require an influx of $430-million in additional revenue under a 50-50 scheme (total league revenues of $3.74-billion or thereabouts). Revenue growth has been phenomenal since the last lockout, but 13 per cent in one year? That's a tall, tall order.

So what does it mean if revenues fall short?

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A pay cut for the players, no matter how you slice it.

The NHL has also reportedly included some further provisions (which Sportsnet's John Shannon was the first to break on Twitter), including extending entry-level contracts from three to four years, adding a year to the eligibility requirement for unrestricted free agency (bumping the age up to 28 from 27 and years of service from seven to eight) and placing a five-year term limit on contracts.

The league also wants AHL players' NHL contracts (hello Wade Redden) to count under the salary cap - a mean-spirited interpretation of that is to call it the Dolan tax, after all the Rangers' owners sued the league over website rights, and this is what you get for crossing head office and your fellow owners.

But the players get to keep arbitration, it's a five year deal rather than six (the NHLPA prefers shorter term) and there is reportedly some mechanism to ensure any money lost up front will be made good over the duration of the contract.

It's hard to see how they'll do that, given a bunch of players under contract right now doubtless won't be in hockey when the deal runs out in five or six years' time.

Let's assume they can, possibly by limiting escrow in the short term, and that the legalese satisfies both sides.

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The NHLPA would still be nuts to simply accept what the league is proposing; Don Fehr described the latest plan is a basis for negotiations, the NHLPA will spend the next few days chipping away at the stuff they don't like, hockey fans are in for a week or two of see-saw talks and associated histrionics.

There may even be a temptation on the part of the players to see the latest proposal as a sign of weakness or incipient desperation on the part of owners, a majority of whom evidently thinks it's time for this to go away.

That would be a mistake.

The league has been intransigent from the get-go in these negotiations, and the mere fact of making a concession on the revenue split - even if it's not as big a concession as it might first appear - will buttress Gary Bettman's argument that the owners are serious about reaching a settlement.

My guess is that if the players try to press their advantage too hard and too far, this will be shortly be painted as the final, fair offer, and the players will be the evil, rich meanies who turn it down and willfully do damage to the game.

So yes, be cheered by the progress, but this fight's still in the middle rounds.

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