Common Sense Necessary in NHL CBA Negotiations.

The following was written just prior to yesterday’s “NHL owners-players only” meeting, but while there is “cautious optimism” having emerged from those talks, I believe the subject of this post remains relevant to the ongoing negotiations.

Both sides are reportedly closer to a deal now than at this point in the previous two lockouts, yet have struggled to reach agreement on some crucial factors.

Emotion is, of course, a prime reason behind the stalled negotiations.

The players despise NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and his small cadre of influential owners, convinced they’re more interested in crushing the union than in negotiating a fair deal.

Meanwhile, the owners aren’t pleased with NHLPA director Donald Fehr’s foot-dragging approach to negotiations.

They don’t hate Fehr as they did Bob Goodenow; indeed, it was their mutual distaste of Goodenow which helped keep the owners more or less united during the season-killing lockout of 2004-05.

Still, they’re not impressed with what they consider his attempt at mind games, and have suggested he hasn’t kept the players fully informed on the league’s proposals.

That’s led to a good deal of anger and frustration among the two sides. If they can’t get past that, hopes for achieving a season-saving deal will likely be dashed early in the New Year.

Even if they can get past the emotional aspect, the two sides will need to employ some old-fashioned common sense to get a deal done.

The two major sticking points are the league’s insistence on implementing a 50-50 division of hockey-related revenue right away, and the PA’s desire that player contracting rights remain untouched.

It’s the league’s stance on the division of revenue which created the “make whole” option, designed to defer the increased escrow payments from the players’ contracts to a later period in the new CBA

The PA, meanwhile, would prefer the reduction in their share of revenue be implemented over the first three-four seasons of the CBA, to lessen the impact of escrow upon the players salaries.

The compromise should be gradual implementation, over a three-year period, reaching the 50-50 division by year four, and remaining there for the duration of the agreement.

League negotiators achieved their ultimate goal of getting the players to agree to reducing their revenue share from 57 percent down to 50 percent, so they should demonstrate flexibility by allowing gradual implementation.

The league could also go a step further by significantly increasing the amount of money proposed for revenue sharing by the NHLPA in their latest offer ($200 million) on November 21.

Such a move might mitigate the players’ claim they’re making all the concessions. Indeed, if the league wanted to be proactive, they would “own” the revenue sharing issue (as it has been the PA stumping for increased revenue sharing), but given the resistance toward it from a number of big market owners, that’s probably expecting too much.

In return, the players must be willing to be flexible on their contracting rights, especially on term limits and increasing the eligibility age for UFA status.

The players consider their contracting rights sacrosanct, but you’ve got to give a little to get, and those are the two areas where concession on their part could bring this lockout to a satisfactory conclusion.

Whenever the issue of contracting rights is mentioned, the PA (usually via several players involved in the negotiations) will claim they’ve done all the giving without getting anything back from the owners.

If they hope to bring about a suitable resolution to this lockout and avoid another lost season, possible lengthy legal battles if they go the decertification route, or another implosion within their ranks resulting in another capitulation to the owners, conceding on the terms limits and UFA eligibility seems the best way, especially if they wish to get the league to agree to a gradual implementation of a 50-50 revenue split.

Much has been made by the PA’s defenders in the media that the league is trying to limit the players’ bargaining power and impose “the most rigid contract and freedom restrictions in pro sports”.

A five year term limit on player contracts, and elevating the eligibility for unrestricted free agency to 28 or eight years of NHL services isn’t draconian, nor is it comparable to a “reserve clause” tying a player to a team for a lengthy period of time.

During the CBA from 1995 to 2004, only two players received contracts longer than five years (Jaromir Jagr and Alexei Yashin). Contract lengths only became an issue following the latest CBA because teams were using them as a means of legalized salary cap circumvention, of which less than ten percent of the NHLPA membership benefited. The rank and file were never offered five-year NHL contracts, and quite frankly, never will be.

If the PA is willing to let this season go into the ditch over contract term limits which affect only the top ten percent of their membership, they need to seriously reconsider their position.

Also during the period from 1995 to 2004, the eligibility age for UFA status was 31. No NHL players complained about that, let alone suggest they were tied to their respective teams for too long.

During the opening two years of the last CBA, the eligibility age was 29, then 28, before dropping to age 27 for the remainder of the deal. No one complained about the higher UFA eligibility age back then.

Increasing it by one year has some league critics suggesting this would hamper the players ability to maximize their earning power. Given that age used to be 31, it’s difficult to take that complaint seriously.

It’s understandable why the players would prefer to keep the current system (age 27, or seven years NHL service), but let’s be honest, increasing it by one year isn’t going to have an adverse effect upon their earning power throughout their NHL careers.

The stars will always get top dollar, and most of those stars will likely be re-signed by their respective clubs long before their UFA eligibility, just like they were under the last CBA.

General managers will continue to overpay for the limited talent in a shrinking free agent pool. The rank and file will continue to make a good living as NHL players.

These aren’t the only issues dividing the NHL and NHLPA, but they are the significant sticking points to be overcome in reaching a new collective bargaining agreement without killing off a season to achieve it.

A little common sense on both sides could go a long way toward achieving that goal. Now it remains to be seen if the two sides are willing to employ it.

3 Comments

  1. I agree common sense has been the missing link here while it appears that emotions, particularly those between Bettman and Donald Fehr, have been a problem. Having said that why do I have a nagging feeling that this whole negotiation has been carefully orchestrated by Mr Bettman and his ‘small cadre of influential owners’? If this gets resolved by having a small group of players and a few select owners sit down at the table after everything else that’s gone on before hand then you have to wonder if there’s an ulterior motive which hasn’t come to the surface yet.
    I was told and am aware that some teams cancelled charity events involving players long before the lock-out it was announced. At least one of those teams has recently, and quietly, re-scheduled an annual event at the latter part of January that includes team players to be present. I’m not a big believer in conspiracies however in businesses like the NHL where there’s large amounts of money involved a lot of planning for this (on both sides) would have been done.

  2. The fact that some players “despise” Bettman and choose to believe that this “cadre” of owners is dictating things as you say, doesn’t make it fact. As you, yourself said, emotions are dictating reactions of most players, and fans, and obviously some pundits…..but emotions don’t equate reality, and the idea of the NHL wanting to break the Union is ridiculous. If that was truly the case, there would have been no movement off of the NHL’s first offer, and if this cadre of union busters existed, then there would have been no hesitation to lose the season, if not more than one to make that perfectly clear. The anti-Bettman catcalls are nothing more than a distraction from cowardly players who lack the distinct courage to confront their own employers…..and yes that is exactly what it is, cowardice.

    The players and their supporters need to stop pretending that moving to a 50/50 revenue split is not a sacrifice, it’s a more than reasonable expectation, and in any other industry would be ludicrous in its own standing. Fehr and his team have been remarkable in distracting the public from his real purposes all along in these negotiations. Remember way back in September, when the NHLPA finally decided to start negotiating (a year after the NHL asked them to), the biggest issue to them was “helping the small market teams”. They kept insisting these negotiations weren’t about MONEY, but that they didn’t want the league to fix the issues using their salaries. But…..now that the NHL has stepped up with the Make Whole money, where are all the calls from the NHLPA about revenue sharing? They finally got the owners to give them what they wanted financially and now they could care less about those small market teams. Another example of “changing tunes” in the NHLPA, we have heard for months that the Fehr brothers have stated that if the league would meet them on the Make Whole issue then the rest of the issues could be resolved in 6 hours……well the league met them in the middle and now those “other issues” are now “core issues” that could result in losing a season.

    More proof of that is something just this morning from a highly respected insider Bob Mackenzie. He stated this morning that the “Union” doesnt think the latest proposal should be put to a vote, yet Bob notes the reaction from players not in the negotiation room says “this could be a workable deal” tells a very clear story. The Fehr brothers alone will decide what is best for the players.

    There is absolutely not one logical reason for a players contract to be longer than 5 years. In the players interest…..if he performs at the same or higher level, he is giving himself an opportunity to make even more money in his next contract. In the clubs interest they are protecting themselves from disasters like Dipietro, which hurts teams, and fans when clubs are handcuffed for years due to cap issues from them. As for the argument that its hypocritical and that its just the NHL’s way of stopping GMs from being idiots……exactly……the exact same reason we have speed limits in school zones…..no one would argue that driving carefully around children is logical, but why then do we need the law? Because we are human and human nature dictates that not everyone follows common sense.

  3. Thursday night, I tune in TSN expecting to see an good NBA matchup between the Knicks and the Heat, and Gary Bettman and his trusty sidekick are addressing the media….. and one thought comes immediately to mind – Gary Bettman was a spoiled kid and he’s still a spoiled kid, the kind that keeps saying, “I want it, I want it!” until his parents get it for him just to shut him up.
    If this season is lost and Bettman’s basically predicting that it will be, it’s on him as a coward who refuses to stand up to the hypocrites who own teams in the NHL and on the so-called ‘doves’ among the owners who won’t challenge the bullies among them.
    Meanwhile, the spoiled kid keeps yapping and those of us who’d like to see a good game get shut out. He makes me want to puke.