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.