My take on some of the notable stories to emerge from the recent collapse of NHL CBA talks.

- NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s emotional press conference on Thursday following the breakdown in negotiations appeared to me an obvious indicator NHLPA Director Donald Fehr’s negotiating style is getting under the collective skins of the league negotiators and owners.

Bettman is usually in control of his emotions during his press conferences, appearing at times smug during his dealings with the press. In my years of following the NHL labor standoffs, however, I don’t recall ever seeing the Commissioner looking and acting as angry and frustrated as he was during that presser.

Most of what Bettman does is calculated for effect, but he’s also a normal human being, and while what he was saying was designed to scare the players into second-guessing the NHLPA leadership, how he was saying it betrayed his feelings over the tough slog he’s had with Fehr in these negotiations.

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While Fehr has, as one pundit suggested, skillfully employed a “rope-a-dope” style in these CBA talks by ignoring the league’s deadlines whilst driving the owners to distraction with his foot-dragging and contradictory statements, one has to wonder if he knows when he’s gone too far.

It’s now believed the NHL owners loathe Fehr, and it’s obvious they’ve been trying to turn the PA membership against him with sly suggestions he’s not keeping them fully informed, bullying dissenters into silence, and leading the players down a path toward ruin.

Through it all, however, the league negotiators kept moving off their “final, best” offers (three so far, according to Backhand Shelf’s Cam Charron) to make new ones. No wonder, then, Fehr keeps pushing their buttons, believing the league hasn’t yet reached the stage where they’ll make that “final, best offer”.

Watching Bettman’s reaction on Thursday, as well as that of his lieutenant Bill Daly, and reading the reported angry reactions among the NHL owners who attended this week’s CBA talks, maybe Fehr finally pushed them too far, to the point where the supposed “moderate” owners wind up falling into lockstep with their more hawkish counterparts.

We’ll find out for certain within the next week or so, after both sides have had a chance to step back and evaluate their respective positions.

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Despite Fehr’s handling of these negotiations, it’s obvious when the new CBA is implemented, the owners will get most of what they sought.

The National Post’s Bruce Arthur neatly encapsulated the situation:

“The owners have crushed them. They have gotten players to agree to a 50-50 split of revenues from 57-43, plus US$300-million in payments to honour parts of existing contracts which would be rolled back, though US$50-million of that is players paying their own pensions. They have pushed the length of the collective bargaining agreement, no matter what, and have put limits on contract lengths. They have held steady on arbitration, and age of unrestricted free agency. It is a rout. All that’s left is finding out how much of a rout it is.”

Remember, the PA began this dance offering up revenue division in their favor, pushed for the league to honor existing contracts or supply a “make-whole” provision worth nearly $400 million, rejected any kind of term limits, and initially sought CBA terms of four-five years.

As Arthur pointed out, they’ve conceded on all of those issues. They’re willing to accept a 50-50 revenue split, gave up demands for existing contracts to be honored. moved much closer toward the league’s “make whole” number, and agreed to contract term limits, albeit one higher (8 years) than what the league proposed (five years, except seven for re-signing free agents).

While many of these issues still have to be hashed out, it’s a good bet the owners will still end up with terms more to their liking.

The only real gains the PA achieved was ensuring arbitration rights, free agent rules and term on entry level contracts remain unchanged.

So what will Fehr ultimately achieve by his machinations?  Simply, getting the best deal he can with the least amount of financial pain to the players.

Ultimately, this CBA, like the last two, will seemingly be in favor of the owners. And just like the previous agreements, once the ink is dry on this one, the owners’ solidarity will disappear, as they once again employ teams of experts to pick apart the deal in search of loopholes to exploit for their own gain.

As a result, a deal once believed favorable to the owners becomes much more advantageous to the players.

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I understand why the league seeks a ten-year CBA, even with an “opt-out” clause for the players by the eighth year. The longer the deal, the longer the period of labor peace, which makes fans and sponsors happy, and ensures a lengthy period of increased revenue.

But there’s a drawback to such a lengthy deal, as it could allow potential problem issues within the agreement to fester longer than necessary.

Consider the NHL CBA for the period of 1994-95 to 2003-04. By the third year of the deal, issues arose regarding the sharp rise in player salaries and the exploitation of loopholes (such as using bonuses to circumvent the cap on rookie salaries) which weren’t to be addressed until seven years later. That led to pent-up ill will between the two sides resulting in a season-killing lockout.

Granted, the league owners extended that CBA twice (in 1998 and 2002) to allow for expansion and Olympic participation.  Nevertheless, those issues went unaddressed for too long, contributing to a toxic atmosphere in subsequent labor negotiations.

A four or five year deal is, of course, too short, but something between six and seven years could be more suitable.

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In recent posts I’ve questioned the PA’s unwillingness to accept five year term limits on contracts, pointing out roughly ten percent of the players have contracts of five years or more, while the rank and file never get them, and never will.

As only the star players benefit from longer term contracts, it seemed unreasonable that the PA’s would fight so hard to reject contract term limits.

But as Ken Campbell of The Hockey News and bloggers Tyler Dellow, Jason Brough and “J.J. from Kansas” recently observed, those extremely long- term, front-loaded contracts actually benefit rank and file players, as those deals result in lower cap hits, creating more cap space to sign depth players.

By eliminating those contracts, the league is creating a situation whereby the best players will still get top dollar, but their contracts will eat up more cap space, meaning less available money for the rank and file.

Dellow pointed out the last CBA didn’t result in any significant increase in salaries for the elite players, while the “middle class” saw substantial increases.

I now better understand the PA’s position on this issue, but given Bill Daly called it the hill the league is willing to die on, it’s a fight they’ll ultimately lose.

That could prove a pyrrhic victory for the owners, costing them more against their cap to retain their stars at the expense of their roster depth.

In other words, if you thought the salary cap made it difficult to keep a winning franchise together before, it’s going to get even tougher when the owners get their way.

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4 Responses to Random Thoughts on the Latest Breakdown in NHL CBA Talks.

  1. Fred65 says:

    “And just like the previous agreements, once the ink is dry on this one, the owners’ solidarity will disappear, as they once again employ teams of experts to pick apart the deal in search of loopholes to exploit for their own gain.”

    I can’t believe this view is still fostered by so many. If you want a reason for “stupid” contracts lets not forget about the instigators of these contracts the good old agents ! They play team against team, and players contracts against player contracts and yet the players are quite willing to hide behind them as though they were not some how involved how many times do you hear players say some thing like … “Oh I leave it to my agent” yeah and seemingly expect the public to believe you have no part of the death of a thousand cuts which result. It’s rediculous to heap all the blame on the owners and not include the real snakes in the grass “the good old agents” incredible

    • Fred: Undoubtedly the agents play their part, but they don’t put a gun to the general managers heads and force them to overpay. More often than not, the general managers willingly, even happily overpay. When it comes to UFAs, they tend to succumb to “auction fever”. Sure, the agent helps drive up the price, like any good auctioneer, but it’s the general manager who decides how much he’s willing to spend.

      For example, here’s NY Rangers GM Glen Sather, on the day he signed Scott Gomez and Chris Drury to what turned out to be ridiculously expensive contracts:

      http://sports.espn.go.com/nhl/news/story?id=2922738

      “It’s pretty exciting,” Rangers general manager Glen Sather said. “We ranked them both as number ones, and we never expected to get both of them.”

      Sather approached both players Sunday and felt during the day that he merely had to convince the pair to come to New York. He knew other teams were interested but didn’t get the impression from Drury and Gomez that he was bidding against other clubs.

      “We still have other people we have to sign so we have to be careful but we think we have things calculated out and we’re in a good position,” Sather said. “We think we can keep everyone we have right now.”

      Drury’s deal also includes a full no-move clause, meaning he can’t be traded without his consent or sent to the minor leagues. Agreeing to such terms is a shift in previous Rangers policy.

      “I’d say it was not as intact as it was yesterday,” Sather said with a laugh. “When you make a deal, there are certain things you try to stick to and certain things you make compromises on.”

      “I have some kind of mixed feeling,” Sather said of the Sabres. “I am happy we got an opportunity to get involved with these players. From Buffalo’s perspective, I’m sure they’re not happy these two guys left but that’s the nature of the beast.

      “I know it was a difficult day for Darcy [Sabres GM Darcy Regier]. You just have to face the facts that sometimes you can’t keep everyone, and at some point it’s probably going to happen to us. This organization has come a long way and this is our opportunity.”

      Sather said both players indicated a desire to play in New York, and signs throughout the course of Sunday emerged that made him believe he could get them both under contract.

      “I don’t think either one of them knew we were negotiating with the other guy,” he said. “We called them both at the same time and neither one knew about it until the very end.”

      Doesn’t sound like Slats was unduly pressed by evil agents to pay what he did to land Gomez and Drury. Indeed, he sounds like a GM who happily paid what he did to ensure he landed both guys, even though it appears he was bidding against himself to do so.

      Ultimately, it is up to the general manager, backed by the team owner, who determines if he’ll pay the asking price to either retain a player or land a free agent. Sometimes, they make shrewd signings which make sense financially. And sometimes, they pay way too much. The agent sets a price, and he and the general manager negotiate until they reach what they feel is a fair price.

  2. Uncle Slavko says:

    I agree with you 100% Lyle. There are half a dozen GM’s (Sather being the prime example) who act like a teenager with a credit card. While fans sometimes get on a GM for not pulling the trigger when a free agent becomes available, teams like the Red Wings, for example don’t tend to overpay just to sign a markee player to put butts in the seats. I applaud the GM’s who seem to have a plan, and who construct their teams for long term winning. And what lets them do that is good, solid drafting and excellent scouting. If I were a GM, that’s where I’d put my owner’s money.

  3. TopRightCorner says:

    The biggest problem is more like the combo of fans and hometown media.
    when free agent time arrives fans go nuts on radio or on sites about ‘we have to get this guy no matter what it takes’.
    if the guy is not signed they go nuts ripping the gm and team and claiming they are not going all out to win.
    funny part is those same fans go nuts and rip the GM if that player gets signed and stinks claiming he is an idiot to sign him for that much.
    i have seen fans high five and do a jig when a player is signed and by the trade deadline are saying dump him for a bag of pucks.
    then of course the media,who help fans whip into a frenzy with saying the team NEEDS this guy or MUST have this guy.
    then they are the same,if the player is not the difference maker they tell everyone what a horrid signing it was and how the team is stuck with him for 8 yrs.
    usually lots of stuff like how the GM is paying 1mill per point or top paid player not going to all star game etc.
    lets face it the GM’s are damned if they do and damned if they don’t and either way the media has a story they can milk.
    i can use minnesota as the latest example where media and fans there are mostly ecstatic with the signings and are expecting big things.
    if the team does really well it will be all high fives and back slaps and praising articles for the signings.
    if they do not do well it will be rip city and fans/media will rip the GM to pieces for signing those contracts.

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