Cover your ears, and open your eyes. Don't listen to the hope or the gloom or the he-said, she-said sniping. Look at what is on the table – or at least was on the table, before the NHL pulled its latest offer in a fit of anger and theater last week. Ignore the spin, and look at the facts.
What do you see?
I see a deal, or at least a path to one. I see a negotiation that should be in its final stages when the NHL and the NHL Players' Association resume talks Wednesday, with federal mediators rejoining the process. I see no excuse – none, nada, zero, zilch – for the season to be canceled. I see no hills on which to die here, not anymore, only the point of diminishing returns.
Is there any battle left to be won that is worth the sacrifice of the season? Of course not.
Which is why some teams are quietly telling staffers to get ready. Which is why more players are popping up at practice rinks. They say it means nothing, and technically that's true: Only the tight inner circles on each side really know the next moves. No one wants to seem too eager and project weakness, either. But whether it's optimism or just-in-case preparation or educated guessing, this is not just wishful thinking. It better not be wishful thinking.
The sides aren't as close as NHLPA executive director Don Fehr made them seem last week. But they aren't as far apart as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly made them seem. At this point, if the deal doesn't get done, if the lockout doesn't end by mid-January at the latest, it won't be because of principles or economics. It will be because the leadership (bleeped) it up.
There has been too much time spent – no, time wasted – on the personalities and politics. You know what? Both sides shift their priorities. Both move their targets. Both pocket one thing and ask for more. Both try to discredit the other. Both use slick tricks. They just do it at different times, in different degrees, in different ways. This is bare-knuckles stuff with big-money stakes.
And yeah, that has led to a lot of disrespect and downright hatred, and that has had a tangible effect. It will continue to have a tangible effect if the NHL doesn't put its last offer back on the table – or if it puts only some of it back on the table, driving the sides farther apart.
But that's why it makes sense to bring back the mediators now. Even though mediation failed two weeks ago, even though everything blew up last week, the sides are closer now than they were before. They are close enough to finish this.
Maybe with the help of a third-party perspective, they can put pride aside, keep things quiet and focus on the issues themselves. Maybe with a smaller group, there will be less miscommunication. Maybe they can admit what should be obvious:
– They aren't as close as Fehr made them seem: Many owners think the players shouldn't receive 50 percent of hockey-related revenue, even though the players made 57 percent before. More owners think the players shouldn't receive 50 percent plus $300 million in "make-whole" or transition payments. Suggest adding additional money outside the system via compliance buyouts or a cap on escrow, and there is going to be pushback.
Team HRR is not league HRR, so weaker teams still might spend more than 50 percent of their revenue on players' salaries even though the league won't as a whole. That's why contracting rules are so important to the league, and why everything is tied together.
Bettman and Daly have bluffed before. They have made their best offers, only to make them better, multiple times. But at some point, they might not be bluffing anymore and their offers really might get worse. "Close" is subjective. "Close" takes two. If the owners pull back, then what?
There is also a ton of fine print to write. Just two examples: As far as the NHL knows, the NHLPA is still proposing a minimum salary cap of $67.25 million. The NHLPA is still proposing the cap and floor be plus and minus 20 percent of the midpoint, widening the salary range. The league wants the cap to be set at $60 million for two years, then to reflect what it feels is a true 50-50 split. It wants the cap and floor set at a smaller percentage of the midpoint, so the salary range stays tight – so the rich cannot outspend the poor too much while the poor don't have to keep up with the rich.
In short, there is still a lot of haggling to be done.
– They aren't as far apart as Bettman and Daly made them seem: The owners have already won the biggest prize. Not only have they gotten the players to stay within the salary-cap system, they have gotten them to drop their demand for guaranteed shares and accept 50 percent of HRR. They got them to agree to a make-whole/transition amount. So if the owners put that $300 million back on the table, the major money issue is solved.
Now we're down to how the money is allocated among the players. The dynamics are complicated, not simple, and no one can predict exactly how the system will work and evolve. But no matter what the GMs and agents do in the future, the owners are protected. They will never pay the players more than 50 percent of HRR after a transition period. And no matter how this negotiation ends up, the system will be more restrictive anyway.
The owners have gotten the players to accept maximum contract lengths and flatter structures, and there isn't much difference between proposals, especially relative to where they were before. The owners want contracts limited to five years but will go as long as seven for teams to re-sign their own players; the players are at eight years. The owners want salaries to vary by no more than five percent year to year; the players want to use existing rules put in after the Ilya Kovalchuk dispute and require the lowest year be at least 25 percent of the highest year. The NHLPA also has proposed a way to address back-diving, cap-circumventing deals. If a player retires early, a formula would turn the previous cap advantage into a penalty.
If the point is to keep long-term liabilities off the books and stop back-diving, cap-circumventing contracts, mission accomplished, either way or anywhere in between. If the point is to stop giving too much to the wrong guys … well, that's mission impossible. There will be human error in any system. But at worst, mistakes will be able to haunt only so long. There won't be another Rick DiPietro deal.
As for the length of the CBA, the owners have gotten the players to go long. While the league proposed 10 years with an opt-out after eight last week, the players proposed eight years with an opt-out after six – when the league had been at six or seven years and the players five.
In short, what are they fighting about again?
– Enough is enough: Look at the big picture. Under the old collective bargaining agreement, there was financial imbalance – with the top teams thriving and others struggling – amid perhaps the best competitive balance in sports.
Now look at the situation. Under this CBA – no matter whose proposal you choose as is, if the NHL's last one is still valid – the owners and players will split HRR 50-50 after transition, as the owners targeted from the start, and the system will be more restrictive.
Shouldn't the league be healthy financially? Shouldn't the competitive balance be as good or better? Wasn't that the goal?
It's time to iron out the details and get it done. There is little left to gain for anyone but a lot left to lose for everyone. Close your ears, open your eyes and keep your eye on the ball – or the puck, if you can still find it.
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