Round and round we go. The NHL Players' Association made more concessions Wednesday, and there was optimism. But then came the fine print, and pessimism. Finally, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr complained there was "no reciprocity," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman insisted the sides were "still far apart," and there was even more frustration.
They're closer. That should be the real takeaway. They're close enough to make a deal. That should be the focus going forward – the only focus. There is no reason to go to the brink of losing an entire season.
Yet the lockout drags on, and more games will be canceled soon, including the All-Star Game. Feelings continue to harden. If you're the players, it's because the owners are going for the kill. If you're owners, it's because the players don't know they're already dead.
From the beginning, the players have acknowledged that they are going to give back, that the only question is how much. They knew they were not going to keep receiving 57 percent of hockey-related revenue. But they have tried to protect what they have as much as possible, in terms of money and rights.
They took more steps toward the owners here. Most notably, they agreed to accept a percentage of HRR, instead of asking for fixed dollar amounts with raises. They agreed to go right to 50 percent, while adopting the NHL's "make-whole" structure to cushion the blow to existing contracts. They also proposed ways to penalize teams for circumventing the salary cap by burying players in the minors and signing long-term, back-diving contracts.
The NHL could no longer say the sides weren't speaking the same language. The NHL could no longer say the sides were $1 billion apart. While the NHL was at $211 million on the make-whole money, the NHLPA was at $393 million – a difference of $182 million, which works out to $1.2 million per team over five years. Was that really going to hold up a deal? Wouldn't the owners at least counter with another number? Wouldn't they relent on some of the contracting issues?
[Related: Union's offer to league leaks out]
"Now it is up to the owners to finally make a move towards the players," according to an internal NHLPA memo leaked to the media.
Another interesting idea: The players proposed the salary cap and floor be calculated plus or minus 20 percent of the midpoint, instead of plus or minus $8 million, and that the cap never fall below $67.5 million. In other words, the rich would have more room to spend, while the poor would not be forced to keep up as much. That should appeal to both ends of the spectrum economically. Combined with increased revenue sharing, conditions should improve for struggling franchises.
But the problem for the NHL is competitive balance, because widening the gap between the rich and poor teams' payrolls could upset the league's now-renowned parity.
And here was another problem. The proposal included this line: "In years two through five of this Agreement, the players' share in dollars may not be less than it was in the previous year." In other words, the 2012-13 season would set the bar. Then the players would never go backward again.
Fehr called it a "small exception" and told reporters: "Players are making enormous concessions to the owners. We want some protection on the downside."
That seems reasonable and relatively low-risk for the owners, especially since the NHL just recorded seven straight years of record revenues. But that would mean if HRR fell for any reason – the Canadian dollar falling, an earthquake, whatever – the players' percentage would rise.
And that defeats the whole purpose of the owners' beloved system. Risk is the crux of the whole thing. The owners want to know they will pay the players a certain percentage of what they take in; they feel they have just been giving the players too high of a percentage.
The players have said they want to give the owners incentive to grow the business, and in theory, if the players' share can never go backward, that is a hell of an incentive. But it not only would penalize the owners for a bad year, it could penalize them for a good year. Say revenue spikes one season for any reason – like, say, the debut of a team in Quebec City or suburban Toronto. If it falls the next season, even if the overall trend is still upward, the players' percentage would be above 50.
The NHL did ask the PA to remove that clause, according to a source. But it is disappointing that the NHL did not at least counter on the make-whole money. It is especially disappointing the NHL did not relent more on the contracting issues, especially on the additional years for arbitration and free agency eligibility – especially when there have been hints that the owners would bend on that if the players would bend on economics.
That confirms the players' fear – that if they make another concession, the owners will just pocket it and ask for more. Bettman said: "There was some movement on some issues by the players' association, and that was appreciated." Yet it wasn't enough, of course. Fehr characterized the league's response like this: "Thanks, but you have to agree with what we said."
The problem is that the owners already consider the $211 million "a gift," in the words of one NHL source, and they feel they have given enough on contracting already. They were asking for two-year entry-level deals; they went to three years. They were asking for "total mutuality of election rights" for arbitration; they dropped that.
[Also: NHL and NHLPA 'still far apart,' but there was progress, too]
The other problem might be simply that the owners saw this as a sign of weakness and are willing to keep using the lockout as leverage. The perception within the league is that Fehr was pushed by the players to make this proposal. Even if he was a lone dissenting voice, Roman Hamrlik didn't help the players' cause when he told a Czech reporter"time is against us," the union should hold a vote and Fehr should be replaced if the season is lost. Bettman said some owners want him to take their current offer off the table, presumably so they can offer something worse and squeeze the players even more.
After the meetings, after a media scrum, Bettman stood on a Sixth Avenue sidewalk in New York and spoke to a frustrated Philadelphia Flyers fan.
"The fact of the matter is," Bettman told Jaymes Hall, 41, of Lancaster, Pa., "when you're dealing with a union and they're not really trying to negotiate any deal that you can live with for the long-term health of this game, there isn't much else you can do. And we're hoping that with the passage of time, the players' association will come to realize that what we have proposed is more than fair."
So if you're the players, what do you do now? Do you believe this is really the NHL's best offer, when the owners have bluffed before? Do you dig in? Decertify? Negotiate? Capitulate?
And if you're the owners, what do you do now? Do you believe this is really the best strategy, that in time the players will just see the light? Do you dig in? Keep canceling? Wait for them to blink again? Wait for them to break?
Does either side really want to go to the brink, let alone beyond? It seems there are varying opinions within both camps, some feeling Bettman and Fehr have gone too far, others feeling they haven't gone far enough to get this done.
Round and round we go – hopefully spinning toward the center, a resolution, some kind of season, and not spiraling down the drain.