Under the stewardship of new executive director Donald Fehr, the NHLPA is taking a much different approach to CBA negotiations with the NHL, but don’t mistake it for weakness.
Most NHL fans tend to get a bit of a knot in their collective stomachs when the term “NHL CBA negotiations” are mentioned.
Labor negotiations between the league and the NHL Players Association have long been contentious, especially over the past twenty years, with a short players strike in 1992, a lockout costing half the 1994-95 season, and a season-killing lockout in 2004-05.
Little wonder most fans, pundits and bloggers are gearing up for yet another work stoppage this fall.
That expectations was heightened recently when the NHL tabled its “initial proposal” to the PA, of which the centrepiece was a reduction in the players share of hockey-related revenue (HRR) from the current 57 percent to 46 percent.
The reviews were decidedly negative. Most observers rightly took it for what it was, merely a first proposal rather than a “line in the sand” from the league, but some critics considered it “a declaration of war” and “a shot across the bow” of the players association, proclaiming the players would be upset over the league’s proposal.
It was expected the PA would swiftly respond with their own proposal, likely to be dismissed as quickly, but also to be considered their own opening response.
Instead, what we’ve seen so far is a quiet, businesslike approach, quite unlike the histrionics of the past, when the attitude of the PA was rather combative.
The response of those from the PA directly involved in the negotiations was calm and measured, as several players described it as a business proposal, merely a first step in real negotiations, and not something worth getting excited about.
It was obvious they were taking their cue from PA Director Fehr, who said pretty much the same thing when questioned during last week’s negotiations about the league’s prosposal.
By week’s end, Fehr announced his side “wasn’t there yet” in terms of a counter-proposal, stating only that this week’s talks would be on “non-core economic issues”, including divisional realignment, player safety and discipline.
When Fehr took over as PA director nearly two years ago, his critics expected him to take a hard-line stance with the league, citing his role in the 1994 Major League Baseball players strike, and his distaste toward any sort of financial give-backs by the players.
What’s continually overlooked is the 16 years of labor peace in MLB following that strike with Fehr at the helm of the players union.
Fehr likely wasn’t pleased by the NHL’s seeking that sharp reduction in player revenue, even as an opening bid, but he’s not about to go off like a bomb over it. The last thing he needs is his charges to get worked up about the league’s proposal.
Instead, Fehr is approaching this as business, rather than taking it personally, and the players involved in negotiations have followed suit.
It would be a mistake, however, to assume this lack of emotion is a sign of weakness. Just because Fehr isn’t dropping the gloves over this first proposal doesn’t mean he’ll be a pushover in negotiations.
It’s certainly the right approach to take.
In 1992 and 1994-95, the PA needed a strong, combative leader in Bob Goodenow to stand up for them after decades of being screwed over by the team owners, as well as by Goodenow’s predecessor Alan Eagleson, who treated the PA as his own fiefdom.
By 2004, however, things had changed, and it was the team owners, led by league commissioner Gary Bettman, willing to dig in their heels to achieve “cost certainty”, even at the cost of an entire season and the risk of alienating their fan base.
Goodenow’s strategy, then as before, was to fight it out, but he and the players badly misjudged the owners resolve.
With Fehr at the helm, there’s no combative posturing, no talks of holding out for as long as it takes, no proclamations of never giving in.
This time, it’s all about striving to get a deal done without a work stoppage, about evaluation and true negotiation, with the player reps more active participants than before.
It remains to be seen how this quieter, businesslike approach works out, but at the very least, it’s changed the tone of negotiations, at least in the early stages, which is a considerable difference to what it used to be in previous talks.
Perhaps by adopting this style of negotiation, the PA might actually come out of this better than their critics, and Fehr’s, expected. And maybe, just maybe, a work stoppage might not be the certainty everyone thinks it will be.