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Donald Fehr on NHL honoring full contracts, perception of fans that players are ‘greedy’

Greg Wyshynski
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How contentious is the relationship between Donald Fehr and Gary Bettman at this point in the lockout?

Two weeks ago, the answer was that there was mutual animosity but nothing resembling the decade-long blood feud between Bettman and Bob Goodenow that manifested in the last work stoppage.

But after this week's failed negotiations in Toronto, it's getting a little nasty. To wit, Donald Fehr to the Ottawa Sun in their Q&A this morning:

"I don't go in for the very dramatic 'I am very disappointed' press conferences that other people engage in."

He's right: This was a tad dramatic. Maybe it was the creepy black backdrop.

The full details on the NHLPA's offer have been leaked to the media, and you can read them on USA Today's site. Please remember that the NHL was slammed by the players for making theirs public. Silly League: leak it next time. Here's Fehr's memo on the third option from the players:

Wrote Fehr: "This means that an individual player under an existing contract would receive the 13% segregated, plus a normal payment, subject to escrow, of 87% of his salary. A player with a new contract would have 100% of his salary subject to the 50-50 split. However, since the 13% of existing contracts are off the cap, this should create more cap space, which will be important as the cap will be squeezed. Over time, the existing contracts expire, and the share will fall towards 50%."

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly had publicly objected to this proposal, saying players would get a 56% to 57% share in the first year and he doubted that the split would ever reach 50-50.

Fehr and Bruce Garrioch had a conversation on Friday that you can read here, and there are a few reactions to it, beginning with:

• Stop with the history lessons. Just stop. Yes, the NHL's owners are likely influenced by the concessions won by their NBA brethren. Yes, their first offer to the players in July was a joke wrapped in a farce wrapped in a 24-percent rollback that set these talks back months due to its ridiculous demands. Yes, the basis for the owners' claims for contractual restrictions and suppression of salaries can be hypocritical and downright nonsensical.

But you know what? Their motivations aren't the issue.

You're not going to shame them into a resolution by repeatedly pointing out that the lockout is built on a shaky premise or that basketball did it first. We all know it is, and most of the owners know it to.

But on Oct. 20, we should be past the "why?" and deal with the "how?"

[Related: NHL and NHLPA wasting time with scare tactics and PR stunts]

• Two questions of note from the Garrioch interview, including this one that's frankly leading the witness a bit:

QMI: Why does the league not want to honour the deals that were signed?

FEHR: "They want to pay less money. That's all. It's really very simple: 'We've agreed to pay to the dollar all the contracts we've signed.' We've now decided that's more money than we'd like to pay.' The reason we made the last proposal the way we did was simply because they want to move toward 50-50. The players have already indicated they are willing to do that over time. The question is: Should you agree to honour the contracts you signed between now and then? Players think that's a straight-forward thing to do and not an unusual thing to do. It's sort of the way everybody does business."

The "make whole" provision the NHL proposed tries to give the owners what they want (an immediate reduction in player costs) and the players what they want (the full value of their contracts, through deferred payment). No one can blame the players for being suspicious or mistrustful about the League's proposal, because the NHL has done little to earn that trust in this negotiation or through its actions back in 2005.

That said, Nick Cotsonika nailed it: This was a path for the NHLPA to achieve its primary objective, and "they could have proposed that it come out of the owners' share instead. They didn't."

The players deserve the full value of their contracts, and any NHL proposal that doesn't achieve that is garbage. But there's no question the League's latest salvo showed a desire to fulfill that obligation through some creative accounting; it's just a matter of whether the numbers add up and who pays for it. Which is why the NHLPA should build off that idea. It has potential.

• This was also interesting, regarding the PR victory for the League this week in gaining major sympathy from the fans:

QMI: What's your message to fans who have spent the past couple of days calling players "greedy" after the 50-50 offer from the league?

FEHR: "It's pretty hard to treat seriously the notion that the athletes, who are the only people who anybody comes to watch, that they would be greedy in the face of a 24% reduction in their pay last time; billions of dollars went to the owners, not the players; seven years of record revenues that was more than anybody thought. The result of all that success is for the owners to say, 'OK, now we want to renegotiate all the contracts again and we want to lower them.' My message to the fans is: I don't think that characterization hits the facts very well. Hockey players are pretty down-to-earth people. That's why fans like and identify with them. They want to do the right thing. The right thing here happens to be proceeding in a way which is not merely, 'Oh the owners asked for billions of dollars I guess we have to give it to them because who are we? Hockey players.' "

Fehr is completely right here.

It's been stunning to witness fans and media turn off their brains and swallow up the NHL's talking points out of an insatiable desire to have an 82-game schedule. There's been way too much "oh, they went 50/50, take the deal boys!"; it's a sentiment that exists without regard for the contractual concessions the players would have to make, the revenue sharing system and other considerations that make "50/50" an unbalanced deal.

We ask these men to sacrifice their bodies on a nightly basis. We ask them to sweat and fight and bleed, to show resolve that many of us couldn't imagine having in pressure situations.

And then we expect them to fold like origami when the League finally makes a mature, quasi-equitable proposal?

Again, it's a credit to Bettman and the NHL (and Frank Luntz) that the proposal and the PR blitz worked this week. But like Fehr said: If you're a "greedy players" person, that characterization doesn't hit the facts very well.

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