"If Donald Fehr and Gary Bettman are here to make a deal, everything's going to be ok. But, if even one of them is out to 'win' the negotiation, the NHL is [expletive]."
- A high-ranking (non-NHL) sports executive on the upcoming CBA negotiations
Isn't that the truth.
We're at a critical point in the sport's timeline, as the league and the NHLPA prepare to begin negotiations Friday in New York City. The good news is the suits and the players don't appear to be at each other's throats like they were in 2004.
Back then, there was no attempt at deal-making. While Bettman's public-relations plan involved explaining how ticket prices would drop with lower salaries (didn't happen), counterpart Bob Goodenow privately told the players they would need to sit out two years to really "win" the fight.
That strategy failed. At their just-concluded meetings in Chicago, players pointed out they ate it for that plan eight years ago. A salary cap, the 24 per cent rollback, escrow payments -- those were huge victories for the NHL. Meanwhile, Fehr suggested the possibility of playing through the Sept. 15 CBA expiration date if negotiations are going well.
Bettman's stayed mostly quiet, although team executives offered uplifting commentary.
"Maybe I'm an eternal optimist on this stuff, but I think there will be no time missed," Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli said two weeks ago on a conference call. "I hope we've learned from our last go-round."
The Ottawa Citizen reported Wednesday that Senators president Cyril Leeder told a roomful of local businesspeople he didn't believe there would be "a disruption" of the season because "there is much less to fight about than there was eight years ago."
It hasn't always been peaceful, though. In view of several people, one owner made pointed comments about how he and his compatriots own the leverage to an NHLPA executive member last week in Las Vegas. This is going to be one of the things to watch during negotiations. During his baseball days, Fehr believed in having as many players as possible attending talks. He wants them all to know exactly what's said.
Quietly, though, both Fehr and Bettman have worked to prepare their constituents. After spending months listening to both players and agents, the union leader began to unfurl his strategy.
He has told them that the current CBA saved the owners billions of dollars in salary. One source said the figure was upwards of $2 billion US, another quoted the number at $3.2 billion. (Neither Fehr nor Bettman were approached for comment on this story.) The question becomes this: since the NHL had record revenues in 2011-12, where is this money going?
Answer: to the wealthier teams. You can tell from his comments this week where Fehr is going -- to tell the NHL the problem must be fixed through increased revenue-sharing. He may try to split the owners with that strategy.
Privately, several teams agree with him. The larger teams think they've given enough at the office. As a group, however, owners tend to present a united front. What will make it tougher on Fehr is that Bettman keeps his guys in line.
The Commish is also a master at behind-the-scenes preparation. Every NHL team was invited to the league's offices this season for a private meeting, with each contingent given the opportunity to say what it wanted to see in a new CBA.
There were some different ideas, but most would like to see increased cost certainty, with the salary floor being a major complaint for the low-revenue teams.
Talks begin less than 48 hours after Dennis Wideman signed a five-year, $26.25 million contract with Calgary. That will be an interesting backdrop. In the outstanding book Lords of the Realm, there is a story about the 1993 baseball negotiations, where Fehr questioned the owners' complaints of financial issues as Cecil Fielder signed a five-year, $36 million contract that featured a $10 million signing bonus.
Other questions as things get started:
Most teams seem to think the 2012-13 season starts around U.S. Thanksgiving in late November, which coincides with NBC's first scheduled game. It should be pointed out, though, when I mentioned this to one GM, he said the theory was ridiculous. "How on earth does anyone actually know that? That's just people guessing. No one knows what will happen."
Barring unexpected consensus, the players are going to be tested. There's been some re-shuffling, but more than half of the NHL's teams have a similar ownership makeup to those who decided to shut it down in 2004-05. Even inside the union, some wonder if the players have the stomach for another lengthy fight.
But, if they do stand strong, the NHL risks a potentially magical Winter Classic. Bettman will also take a beating, with the NHLPA sure to ask how many times he needs to shut down a season. There are some people on both sides who genuinely dislike each other.
Full disclosure: I tend to lean slightly to the players in these disputes. After all, without players there is no game. (Although, I can't stand people who tell owners how to spend their money, just like no one should tell you how to spend yours.)
But it's hard to take sides in this one. This isn't 2004, it's a time for consensus, not conflict. It was pointed out to me recently that the players actually got a better deal by sitting out the entire 2004-05 season, because the final offer made in early 2005 was a flat $42 million cap. Whatever the case, a lost 2012-13 is a complete failure for the players, ownership and the league.
Go back to the above quote. Is hockey ok or is it f----d? We probably won't know until September, but, hopefully, it's the former.
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