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.
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.
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.
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.
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.