Gloves are off in NHL labour talks | Hockey | CBC Sports

Hockey Night in CanadaGloves are off in NHL labour talks

Posted: Saturday, November 10, 2012 | 12:10 AM

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NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the league filed a class-action complaint against the NHLPA on Friday. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the league filed a class-action complaint against the NHLPA on Friday. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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This isn't the first time the league has taken issue with NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr's communication to the players. Last month, it released a full proposal on nhl.com because it felt the message wasn't getting through. And, the weirdest thing about Friday's accusation was that the NHL's latest offers were made with several players in attendance, writes Elliotte Friedman.
The easiest way to do this is by re-setting Friday night's timeline.

At about 6:45 pm (ET), The Minneapolis Star-Tribune's Michael Russo posted a blog referring to an internal NHLPA memo from Thursday night.

Russo, highly respected in hockey circles, reported, "The league feels the memo isn't a fair portrayal of what the owners offered."

One of the issues is that the NHL feels it has made a significant offer to take ownership of the "make-whole" provision, the most critical step in getting the revenue share to a 50/50 split. Several other reports pegged the amount at $211 million US plus interest.

That specific fact was not included in Fehr's note to the membership. One player and one agent said the omission was because of a belief the memo would be leaked; the NHLPA did not want to be responsible for an NHL proposal being made public. 

Another source said the league had a problem with another section: "Moreover, at the same time we were told that the owners want an 'immediate reset' to 50/50 (which would significantly reduce the salary cap) and that their proposals to restrict crucial individual contracting rights must be agreed to." 

The NHL felt that was unfair, because it has proposed the first season would be a transition year, with a cap of $70 million to allow time for compliance. Also, the league believes it has said some of the contract issues (five-year terms, for example) are negotiable. (It's my belief that, at this time, the only one of those issues the NHL considers ironclad is the maximum five per cent salary variance from year-to-year in a contract. That would eliminate the Roberto Luongo-type deals.)

This isn't the first time the league has taken issue with Fehr's communication to the players. Last month, it released a full proposal on nhl.com because it felt the message wasn't getting through. 

For their part, players have said many times that information flows much more freely than in 2004-05, when, for example, the vast majority were not aware that the NHLPA was going to propose a 24-per cent salary rollback. And, the weirdest thing about Friday's accusation was that the NHL's latest offers were made with several players in attendance.

Anyway, Russo's story was explosive, coming at such a sensitive time. Sent out some emails and texts looking for reaction, and those who did respond were very angry -- using words like "laughable," "immature" and "crap." They saw it as an attempt to split the players and pointed out how so few owners are allowed in negotiating sessions.

Fehr's reaction -- about 90 minutes later -- was very interesting. He denied he's not fully communicated any of the league's offers to his players and added the "NHLPA doesn't feel it is as far apart on core economic issues as NHL says they are." (Source: Pierre LeBrun's twitter page.)

That calmed the waters, which is important, but seemed strange considering his 24-hour-old memo said "there is still a lot of work to be done and bridges to be crossed before an agreement can be made."

What is the context behind this?

After the NHL warned its governors that talks could break off two days ago, we all had to realize this was possible. Still, the Russo story surprised me. We've only had four real days of hard-core negotiations in this horribly-managed labour dispute. 

There is no way anyone could have expected an agreement this quickly. 

But, this accusation blew into the open what has been an undercurrent of league and team frustration at Donald Fehr. The NHLPA's executive director is driving the NHL and its bargaining team crazy. 

Obviously, the owners are no angels. But, among the complaints: 

  • He doesn't negotiate off their proposals. 
  • He continues to make offers that include an overall salary raise for the players in year one 
  • This week, he actually raised the amount of money he was looking for in revenue-sharing (to $260 million). 
  • Friday, he kept the owners waiting before beginning scheduled talks; the second time that's happened. 
  • Rightly or wrongly, even moderates among the teams question his true devotion to the players, believing he has invested nothing in the sport and will damage it, simply walking away once this is all over. 
At the end of the day, I've always believed the players want to play. The league counts on that, too. At the same time, those same players believed teams were going to crack. I've wondered how true that was going to be, but some of them are legitimately concerned about the season.

That seems crazy to hear on Nov. 10. There is no way the season is in any danger -- yet. But, if games aren't started by Dec. 1, it sounds like those in the league who don't want to lose 2012-13 are worried about the hardliners regaining control of the process. And they don't see enough progress being made. 

Fehr can see that and he's trying to exploit it. That's why they took a run at him. They want to see if there's any internal dissent, pressure within the NHLPA to push him out. 

It's a big game of chicken right now. What we wait to find out is this: did they weaken him, or just make Fehr's position stronger?

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