As the NHL and the NHL Players' Association begin labor talks Friday at the league offices in New York, how can they stage the quiet, successful negotiation they both say they want? How can they continue the game's momentum uninterrupted?
One side can give in to the other, or both sides can meet in the middle somewhere.
We know one side will not give in to the other without a fight. Just look at the revenue split between the owners and players: If the owners insist on some number the players consider too low – 50 percent or less – we're probably headed for a lockout. If the players won't accept less than the 57 percent they have now, we're probably headed for a lockout.
So we're left to wonder whether both sides can meet in the middle somewhere. My question: Would the players accept a lower percentage of revenue if the owners agree to increased revenue sharing?
NHLPA executive director Don Fehr called that a "vastly premature question," and it is. Though the sides have exchanged information and met informally, they have yet to unveil their positions to each other, let alone the public. Neither side is going to say much before they sit down to the table, let alone concede anything. Would you walk into a car dealership declaring you've got some wiggle room?
"You don't start the negotiations by announcing you'd like a less favorable arrangement," Fehr said.
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Fehr also could have called that a "vastly simplified question," because it is. A number of other issues will come up. Here are just a couple of them: The owners want to limit contracts to six years; you can bet the players won't like that. The players want to go to the 2014 Sochi Olympics; the owners don't.
No one knows how the negotiations will evolve – what the sticking points will be, what the pressure points will be. Over what will the sides really go to war? And when will either side really feel compelled to move? Sept. 15, when the current collective bargaining agreement expires? Early October, when the season is supposed to open? November, when NBC starts showing games in the United States? Later?
But based on conversations with people of all stripes on both sides, the informed speculation is that the big issues – the issues with the most potential to cause a work stoppage – will be the revenue split and revenue sharing. And so that is where the main compromises will have to come.
"We'll have to get into it at bargaining," said Fehr on Wednesday, as the NHLPA wrapped up three days of meetings in Chicago. "We'll have to see what the positions of the parties are. That's a vastly premature question at this stage of the events, more appropriately asked down the road a bit, perhaps weeks from now, once we know what the positions of the parties are and once we see what the situation is."
Neither party might reveal its position right away. Fehr said early in negotiations the sides typically "try to come to a common understanding of what the facts are." In other words, they see if they see the situation the same way, before they see whether they can agree on what to do about it.
Easier said than done. Again, just look at the revenue split: The players receive 57 percent of what are defined as "hockey-related revenues." That was negotiated into the current CBA. But expect the union to argue that the players actually receive more like 51 percent of the owners' total revenues, and expect the league to dispute that. It's all in the accounting, and the definition of hockey-related revenues can be redefined in the next agreement. That could be a battle in and of itself.
Once the sides unveil their positions, we first need to see if either will go nuclear. Will the owners ask for the elimination of guaranteed contracts? Will Fehr challenge the existence of the salary cap, having fought against the cap as the longtime leader of the Major League Baseball Players Association? Those types of things would be non-starters and lead to prolonged conflict.
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St. Louis Blues captain David Backes, a member of the union's negotiating committee, said last week he hadn't heard anyone calling for sweeping change, as in 2004-05, when the owners sacrificed a season to get the salary cap. Backes said he expected "give and take."
" 'We don't like this.' 'We don't like this,' " Backes said. "Everyone's happier on the other side. Let's keep playing hockey. Let's keep growing revenues. Everyone's doing better on the other side. That's what I think is ideal."
The owners argue that giving the players 57 percent of revenues is too much, because out of their 43 percent, they have overhead – arenas, operations costs – and they assume all the risk.
The richer teams have done well under this system, because the cap has kept down their player costs, but the poorer teams have struggled, because the floor has forced them to spend more than they can afford. The floor, at $54.2 million this season, is $15.2 million higher than the original $39-million cap ceiling was in 2005-06.
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At least from the league's perspective, there might be a deal to be made in which the owners receive a greater share of future revenues and the players don't lose a dollar they have currently.
Basically, the owners' share would go up as the revenues go up, the way the players' share went up as the revenues rose under the current agreement. The players' pay would stay the same at it is now – at least for two or three years, when owners' and players' percentages would flatten out, the revenues would reach a certain point, and the players' pay would start rising again.
Why would the players go for that? The players argue that the owners agreed to 57 percent last time, and the players made huge concessions – the cap system, a 24-percent salary rollback, escrow accounts. They have done well under this system, but not as well when you consider they had to take a step back first. They don't want to give up any more.
The only way they might is if they believe this is their best deal, to keep what they already have in terms of dollars, and if the owners agree to even the money amongst themselves, too. The NHL has gone from a $2.1-billion business to a $3.3-billion business under this CBA. But those revenues vary widely from team to team, and not enough revenue is going to the low end of the spectrum. The players won't want to eliminate or lower the floor to solve that problem for the owners.
In his heart of hearts, Fehr likely would prefer the luxury tax system he championed in baseball. He would want to give the rich teams the freedom to spend while supporting the poor teams just enough, not so much as to discourage investment. Will he propose that, or increased revenue sharing within the framework of this system, or what?
That is more appropriately asked down the road a bit, perhaps weeks from now.
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