NHL labour talks produce uncertainty
The Kings have the Stanley Cup. The Wild won the free-agent sweepstakes by landing their $98 million US stars, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. And Rick Nash is now in the Big Apple.
A dramatic spring and an eventful summer has given the NHL plenty of buzz.
But ever so slowly, an uncertain autumn looms.
Commissioner Gary Bettman's league faces the possibility of being the next sport to endure a labour dispute — what would be its third in less than two decades — and there is growing concern that talks over a new collective bargaining agreement are stagnating. The league and the players' union have been meeting for weeks and still — nothing.
"The last thing [we] need to do is have some kind of a work stoppage, because we've made great strides with the positive spin hockey's had," Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller said. "I think the years coming out of the [2004-05] lockout, we got a lot of the fan base back, a lot of positive energy. Mix that with the Olympics here in North America, a couple of good playoffs, and we have a fan base that's loyal and, honestly, the best sports fans out of any sport.
"We can't alienate them. This is up to the NHL and the NHLPA to just get it right."
Easier said than done. On Wednesday, the two sides polished off another set of talks at the league offices and not much progress was made.
"The owners did flesh out their proposal a bit further," NHLPA executive director Don Fehr said. "Gave us some of the numbers which is very helpful. It will take us some time to review that information, digest it, bottle it and figure out what the appropriate response is."
Yet with talks about to enter their seventh week, and with only six weeks remaining before the current CBA is set to expire, concern is mounting about a shortened season.
Fehr has said the players are willing to work past Sept. 15 if an agreement hasn't been signed, as long as one is on the horizon. If it isn't — could a year like 1995 be more likely? That's when the NHL played just a 46-game schedule.
The key issue in all this? No surprise, it's money.
The players now receive a 57 per cent share of hockey-related revenues, yet the owners' initial offer would drop it to 46. Former Red Wings great Ted Lindsay said it's "understandable" the league is asking for rollbacks. After all, the players signed a quality deal with a quality percentage back in 2005. Now — some think — it's the owners turn.
"Certainly they have a right to ask for anything they want, but if the players had any brains, they wouldn't accept it," Lindsay said. "But you have to start somewhere."
Lindsay found it contradictory for the owners to cry "poor-mouth" at a time when record deals are being signed in a league with record revenue in excess of $3.1 billion. Defenceman Shea Weber, for instance, last month signed the second-largest contract in NHL history, when Nashville matched a 14-year, $110 million offer sheet by Philadelphia.
Lindsay said the owners are off base.
"They have to sell this game," he said. "Not destroy it."
Another issue related to finances is how long a player must wait to become an unrestricted free agent and cash in, like Parise and Suter. The current waiting period for most players — there are exceptions for goalies — is seven seasons. The NHL is said to want that increased to 10. The owners also want to cap contract lengths at five years, and extend rookie contracts to five years from three.
Olympic participation is a side issue, though one the league and players mostly agree on. The NHL likes playing in the Olympics because it helps highlight its sport and players.
Player pensions, length of training camp and even ice conditions also have been discussed.
The owners also have put revenue sharing on the table, though Fehr said the proposed changes merely make it more "inclusive." And NHLPA special assistant Mathieu Schneider said revenue sharing was not discussed on Wednesday.
"We haven't evaluated the changes from current revenue sharing to determine whether we think it's the appropriate thing to do," Fehr said, "or if it misses the mark in some respect."
So, where does that leave the situation? Well, at some point, a counterproposal from the NHLPA needs to be made. It has the records. It has the paperwork. The puck is in its end of the ice, so to speak.
"We won't know everything," Schneider said, "until we've gone through all the information."
All that said, the talks at least appear more cordial than in 2004 when Bettman cancelled the season. Eventually, a salary cap was installed, and hockey was played in 2005-06.
"They've been all good, very professional. I would say very few issues where you could feel tension in the room," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said of the mood between the two sides. "I haven't sensed difficulty."
And that's all despite the presence of Fehr, the hardline, former MLBPA head, who has drawn rave reviews from the players. Fehr, keep in mind though, represented baseball players in 1994, when the post-season was cancelled amid a work stoppage.
"There's no one more qualified to be doing what he's doing," Montreal Canadiens defenceman Chris Campoli said. "He's the best in the world."
Miller points out that the league locked out the players last time. And the owners took the players up on an offer to roll back existing contracts 24 per cent to ease the cost to clubs without the creation of the salary cap. In the end, the cap was installed anyway.
"I'd like to think that — compared to the other pro sports — we've already made our concessions," Miller said. "We rolled back. We took big chunks off."
Line in the sand or not, both sides realize what a stoppage would mean. There are examples all over the place. After all, the NBA just completed a shortened, 66-game season, and the NFL narrowly avoided missing time, as well, last summer.
Despite negotiations dragging on, Philadelphia coach Peter Laviolette said his team is preparing as normal, with training camps scheduled to open Sept. 16 and the season slated to begin Oct. 11.
"I think there is a lot of preparation in the month beforehand with regard to your team and what it is shaping up to be," he said. "I don't think anything will change that. Hopefully we move forward as planned.
"But if we don't, I guess it gets delayed. And you move forward when they say move forward."
When that is, however, remains to be seen.