NHL-NHLPA revenue agreement may be good omen

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

They released the news at 4:59 p.m. on Friday, one minute before the close of business for the week. It was a joint statement from the NHL Players' Association and the NHL, and it was short and sweet. Three paragraphs. No quotes. No mention of the men involved.

The statement said the union and the league settled their dispute over hockey-related revenue. That was about it. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly declined to comment via email, and NHLPA executive director Don Fehr would say only this through a spokesman: "We are pleased that we were able to reach a mutually acceptable resolution."

This was handled as if it were insignificant or as if they didn't want anyone to notice. But that is precisely why it is significant, why we should notice. It might be a positive sign ahead for labor negotiations. At least it's a positive sign that the two sides are aware we're looking for signs – on edge after a lockout erased the 2004-05 season, overly sensitive to every word or development, trying to divine what will happen with the collective bargaining agreement expiring Sept. 15.

In short, the union and the league fought over money – millions of dollars – and they got a deal done quietly.

That's about the opposite of what happened with realignment. It was just two Fridays ago when the NHL released a statement announcing it was delaying its realignment plan for the 2012-13 season because the union had declined to consent to it.

Daly said the league believed the union had acted "unreasonably in violation of the league's rights," and the league intended to evaluate its "available legal options and pursue adequate remedies." The union responded with its own statement from Fehr – outlining its questions about travel and the playoff format, saying it didn't have enough information, suggesting the league didn't want to discuss ideas.

Many in the media connected the dots to collective bargaining with doom and gloom, and Fehr would argue we shouldn't have.

"I think what happens in a lead-up to bargaining like this, especially given the yearlong lockout we had last time, is that you have a lot of members of your profession who understandably are looking for omens," Fehr told me in a recent interview. "They're looking for signs as to which way the wind is blowing, and what you tend to do is extrapolate perhaps in circumstances in which you really shouldn't."

Well, as we extrapolated negatively then – rightly or wrongly – let us extrapolate the other way now. Let's just do it with caution, with what Fehr said in mind.

There was potential for trouble here. The NHLPA now is led by Fehr, who earned a reputation as a tough negotiator as the longtime leader of the Major League Baseball Players Association. Perhaps its first major move under Fehr was to challenge the league's accounting of hockey-related revenue in 2010-11. The union did it for a variety of reasons, but most notably because the city of Glendale, Ariz., paid the league $25 million to cover its losses running the Phoenix Coyotes.

That's important because the players are entitled to 57 percent of league revenues under the current labor agreement, and part of their paychecks are held in escrow until those revenues are calculated to make sure the owners don't spend too much. Once you know how big the pie is, you know how big the players' piece is supposed to be – and how much of their money they still have to be paid.

The union could have gone to litigation and staged a fight, and it could have gotten nasty publicly. Instead, the sides held a series of private discussions – principally between Daly and NHLPA outside counsel Steve Fehr, Don Fehr's brother – and compromised. The league obviously gave up something because revenues are being counted that wouldn't have been. The union likely didn't get everything it wanted, but it got more than it would have.

The sides also agreed on how the disputed accounting will be handled this season. The players' escrow money and the teams' revenue-sharing payments, which were on hold, will be distributed in the coming weeks.

Keeping a low profile and keeping the details under wraps keeps anyone from declaring victory – and keeps the media from covering this too much like a hockey game and extrapolating too much to the big picture.

I am still pessimistic about the sides reaching an agreement before Sept. 15.

It seems clear the NHL will want to reduce the players' percentage of revenue to about 50 percent in the next CBA, the way the NFL and NBA did via lockouts last year, and it seems clear the NHLPA will fight having conceded so much after the 2004-05 lockout – the salary-cap system, a 24-percent salary rollback, escrow.

There are many other potential issues – from the gap between the salary cap and salary floor, to the supplemental discipline process – and Fehr has rebuilt the union into an organization that can stand up for itself again.

But the truth is that I don't know what's going to happen. No one does. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has said the league has been ready to negotiate for a while, Fehr has said he expects to start after the All-Star Game and the All-Star Game is next Sunday, but the sides aren't even close to scheduling their first official bargaining session. They haven't laid out their positions to each other yet, let alone to the public.

How can you handicap the odds of a lockout if you don't know what the sides want and how badly they want it?

The realignment issue still could get ugly if the league takes it to arbitration. But at least the league knows now – if it didn't before – how the union will react in similar situations under its new leadership. At least the sides found a way to divvy up millions before sitting down to divvy up billions. At least there is still a lot of time to get the big deal done.

And at least – whether we're wise to look for omens or not – we finally got a good one.