NEW YORK – As it turned out, all the optimism expressed over the past couple of days from both the NHL owners and the players was nothing more than a sham and a complete failure. For exactly one day in this process, they played nicey-nicey in the sandbox. The reality is these two sides have not been in the same universe since the day this imbroglio began and what makes things even more depressing for hockey fans is they’re further apart than ever.
The theatrics that played out Thursday in the shadow of the lights of Times Square in New York was something to behold. NHLPA executive director Don Fehr, who has now officially driven the NHL head office completely batty, comes down to announce the players have made a bold, new proposal with tons of concessions and that the two sides have the framework of a deal. He barely gets back up to his room when the league leaves a voicemail with his brother and lieutenant, Steve Fehr, essentially telling the players to go and pound sand. It also informed everyone that everything is off the table at this point.
“The characterization that I just heard that was just transmitted to us that we were close, that reminds me of the last time the union said we were close and we were a billion dollars apart,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. “I’m not sure that spinning us all into an emotional frenzy over, ‘Maybe we’re close and we’re going to be playing hockey tomorrow,’ is terribly unfair to our fans and it’s unfair to this process.”
And that’s where we are in this dispute. Two sides who have been coming from alternate realities since the beginning somehow have managed to polarize themselves even more. Both sides have bent over backward to present themselves as an aggrieved and oppressed group that has made far more concessions than it was prepared to do. If you’re a hockey fan it would be a good time to cue Chopin’s Funeral March and begin coming to grips with the notion of missing a season of NHL hockey for the second time in eight years.
Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly were as flustered at the podium in New York Thursday night as these eyes have ever seen them. That is what Fehr has done to them. But nobody could say they didn’t have this coming. When they drove a stake through Bob Goodenow and seemingly embarrassed the players the last time around, they succeeded in getting rid of Goodenow and came as close to breaking the union as you possibly could. Suffice to say the league would welcome Goodenow with arms wide open these days. When you feel the need to crush someone, that’s when they rise with a vengeance.
In fact, if you believe Winnipeg Jets defenseman Ron Hainsey’s version of the events, the league is trying to do an end-around when it comes to Fehr. Hainsey said the players were told Wednesday night that they felt both sides were coming together. But they were also told that if the players insisted upon bringing Fehr back into the process, it could prove to be a deal breaker. If that’s the case, perhaps the league thought the dumb jocks would come to their senses and cave, essentially undermining their leadership once again. And as it has since this process began, the league thought wrong.
(Perhaps it couldn’t be helped for thinking that way. A lot of players who were not in the room negotiating were reported to have been deluging the NHLPA with pleas to accept the framework of the deal.)
“As confident as some of us players are in the issues, we cannot close deals,” Hainsey said. “I’d like to think we could, but we cannot. I can’t envision a scenario where without the help of mediation or our leadership, that we can close any deal. I just don’t see how we could do it.”
Perhaps the owners didn’t talk to their baseball brethren. Perhaps they did and they didn’t really listen. But Fehr has succeeded in making the league chase its tail. Bettman even used that term at one point. He continues to change the target – from contract issues to “make whole” provisions to the latest hobby horse, player pensions. Daly, in particular, was as angry as I’ve ever seen him, including any time during the process in 2004-05.
When talking about the dispute in the length of player contracts – the league wants a maximum of five years and the players proposed eight – Daly said it was, “the hill we will die on.” When a consensus builder and buffer such as Daly is using that kind of language, you know things are getting nasty.
Coming into these talks, the league said it made clear to the players that if it was going to soften its stance on things such as arbitration, make whole dollars, unrestricted free agency and entry-level contracts, it needed three elements: a 10-year deal with a player option to open it after eight, a limit of five-year terms on contracts and an agreement on “compliance issues.” For example, the league could not accept that teams would be allowed to have compliance buyouts that fall outside of the cap system after the new CBA is negotiated.
The players proposed an eight-year deal that could be reopened after six. They proposed contracts of up to eight years, with those seven or eight years subject to a provision where the lowest salary year couldn’t be less than 25 percent of the highest salary year. And they would only acknowledge there was still a lot of work to do with respect to compliance issues and transition rules.
There is one area where your correspondent feels the players are making a mistake. Since the NHL strike in 1992, the players have improved their lot in every deal they’ve made with the league, including the one in 2005 where the players were supposedly taken to the cleaners. Every time they’ve had to make concessions and would have preferred to play under the terms of the existing deal. So why not have a long-term deal? Fehr pointed out that there is no way of knowing where the business will go long-term, but history has told us that it always, always benefits the players in a big way.
Fehr reasoned that if the players should want a long-term deal, then why not have a 27-year deal?
That’s looking pretty good right now for a fan base that has been abused and taken for granted. But that’s a pipe dream, just as was the notion that this player-owner get together was ever going to accomplish anything.