Is anybody strong enough to look weak? Is anybody smart enough? Because somebody will have to budge for the NHL and the NHL Players' Association to reach a labor agreement, and this is the last chance to strike the best deal for everybody involved.
The league and union just spent three days dithering over details while entrenched on the big issues, and they are scheduled to meet again Tuesday in New York. It's October. The season is supposed to start Oct. 11. The league is on the cusp of canceling real games.
Are these guys going to reach a compromise in a couple of months, when they could have reached one today without losing short- term money and risking long-term growth? Or is this lockout going turn into a battle of wills – each side digging in deeper, waiting for the other to break, going for the win – snowballing into a larger disaster?
This is a real deadline, and that calls for real proposals, and that calls for leadership. You've got to think one or both sides will make a last-ditch effort this week, but it's got to be a genuine effort to save the start of the season, not just a transparent effort to save face.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Don Fehr both are experienced, accomplished, hard-nosed. Bettman is the man who brought the salary cap to hockey; Fehr is the man who fought the salary cap in baseball.
Both have top lieutenants. Bettman has deputy commissioner Bill Daly, a veteran of the lockout that canceled the 2004-05 season. Fehr has special counsel Steve Fehr, his brother and right-hand man from his baseball days.
They all know the dance, the art and nuance of negotiation, and the hope is that they have been saving their best for last. Bettman and Don Fehr have met in private, if only briefly. Daly and Steve Fehr have met in private, far more extensively. The four have been in a room together alone.
They should have been throwing out off-the-record ideas, hinting at how much further their side could go and reading the others' reactions, so they could go back to their constituents, come up with a solution and present it in a formal session.
But the fear is that these men and their constituents are too proud to back down, that this is a game of high-stakes poker in which everybody wants all the chips. Daly has said repeatedly that the league is waiting for the union to make the next proposal. Steve Fehr has pointed out that this isn't ping-pong.
Nobody wants to be pressured. Nobody wants to be impatient. Nobody wants to move too far too fast. Nobody wants to look weak, because it could be used against them if this doesn't work out now. And so nobody has made a formal proposal since Sept. 12 – almost three weeks ago now.
The owners and players have been maintaining positions they know full well are unacceptable to the other side. Somebody has to show the creativity and courage to craft a proposal that could be realistically accepted by both sides. That doesn't mean total capitulation. That means moving far enough on enough issues that the other side will move, too, sparking an actual give-and-take.
There is no reason the NHL cannot make the next proposal. Although the league made the last one, Bettman said that proposal would come off the table when the collective bargaining agreement expired Sept. 15, so the league actually has nothing on the table at all at the moment. Although the players haven't budged much off their opening proposal, the league hasn't given them incentive to move. All the league has done to this point is give the players incentive to fight.
The owners asked the players to reduce their percentage of hockey-related revenue to as low as 43, then 46, then 47 – when the players used to make 57 and the league has posted seven years of record HRR. The owners have kept asking the players to take an immediate pay cut, when the players swallowed a 24-percent rollback last time and their No. 1 principle in these negotiations is "no rollback." The owners have kept attacking contract lengths, arbitration rights and free agency eligibility. They are not intimidating the players; they are ticking them off.
The players feel they already have shown weakness and are paying for it. They broke in 2004-05 when they accepted the salary cap and that massive rollback, and they made major concessions in their opening offer this time in an effort to make a deal. Not only do they feel they have moved far enough, they feel if they give up more, the league will ask for even more. They believe their proposal, because it includes more revenue sharing than the owners' does, addresses the real problem – the disparity in money from market to market. That’s why they haven’t budged much.
There is no reason the NHLPA cannot make the next proposal, though. While the players' proposal projects they would receive much less than 57 percent of HRR going forward, that assumes the business will keep growing – and at a healthy rate. Once regular-season games are canceled, no matter whom you blame, the business will start shrinking, at least in the short term. The players made $1.87 billion in salary last season and want raises of 2 percent, 4 percent and 6 percent the next three seasons, compounded, guaranteed. How will they be able to get that next week, let alone next month, let alone next year? Why has that become a sacred line in the sand?
One last time: No immediate pay cut for the players, but no raise, either. Freeze their $1.87-billion salary from last season. Pay the contracts that have already been signed as they were supposedly intended, by capping escrow, by deferring some payments, whatever. Scale the players' percentage of HRR to about 50 percent over time. Outlaw front-loaded contracts that circumvent the salary cap, maybe make some other minor adjustments, but otherwise leave the contracting rules alone. Increase revenue sharing more than the owners want, but not as much as the players want. Drop the puck.
If regular-season games are canceled this week, that does not mean the entire season will be canceled. It's still early October, and there will still be time to save some of the season. It does not mean Don Fehr will challenge the salary cap, either. As much as he would love to fight the cap personally, he and the players know what that would mean practically. The owners might turn around and challenge guaranteed contracts. The war would go nuclear. We're not at that point. Yet.
But if nobody makes a real proposal this week – an honest-to-goodness attempt at compromise instead of some tactical move – nobody really knows what will happen. Nobody really knows when the next pressure point will be and how the sides will react. Nobody knows when games will be played. Nobody knows whether the fans will return the way they did last time, especially in the markets that need help.
An opportunity will be lost and maybe much more.
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