The devil is most certainly in the details, but there is every reason to believe the bold and out-of-the blue proposal the NHL made to the Players' Association Tuesday morning can provide at least the basis for a deal that could save a full 82-game season.
And here’s why. As has been widely reported, the league offered a deal that is at least six years in length that would see the revenues between the owners and players split 50-50.
"It would have been a great first offer," one NHLPA executive told THN.
The next question is, 50-50 of what? If the league wanted to still re-define what hockey related revenue (HRR) is and sought to increase its share of that money, the proposed deal would look a lot worse than it does on the surface.
But a source close to the negotiations confirmed to THN.com the definition of HRR would remain the same as it is in the current agreement. That’s a significant shift for the NHL, one that has the potential to change the tone of negotiations from dismal to, the very least, hopeful.
"If this had been their first offer, would we be playing now? I'd have to think we would have started training camp on time. And maybe that's where the optimism lies," one NHLer told THN.
Clearly what this proposal does is at least, for the first time since this fiasco began in August, put some meat on the bone. The league’s first offer to the players was an absolute joke and was summarily dismissed – as it should have been. That the league has finally begun to show a willingness to at least negotiate seriously has to be construed as a positive sign.
“I’ve been looking for a way to get these negotiations jumpstarted and if this does it, that would be great,” said NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr. “We’ll see though.”
There are still some sticking points. As reported by John Shannon of Rogers Sportsnet, the proposal does have some significant spending curbs included. The biggest one is that all NHL contracts will go against the salary cap, which essentially means the day of burying mistakes in the minors are gone. In other words, a contract such as Wade Redden’s $6.5 million per year deal – which still has two more years to run – would go against the New York Rangers cap. (It would likely only apply to newly signed deals and not ones that have already been signed.)
According to reports, the entry-level period for a player would stay at three years, as would his tenure to achieve free agency. The league’s proposal calls for a five-year limit on contracts, which remains unchanged from its offer in the summer, but the players would maintain the current system of salary arbitration.
“We had a number of significant elements that we believe can and should serve as the basis of a deal to get us playing hockey,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
And playing a full 82-game season, according to Bettman, who believes that if a deal can be struck within the next 10 days, the league could accommodate a one-week training camp with no pre-season games. (If for no other reason than that one, hockey fans everywhere should be cheering vociferously for that to happen. After what both sides have forced the fans to endure, nobody deserves to have to watch – and pay for – the mind-numbing and near-useless exercise of exhibition games.)
This is not a final deal, by any stretch of the imagination. There is still much negotiating to be done. For example, what to do with escrow? The NHLPA remains vehemently opposed to any sort of rollback – by their definition meaning less money in their pockets – and this will almost certainly serve to ratchet up the escrow payments, not lessen them. This past season, players put 8.5 percent of their salaries in escrow, about 90 percent of which will be returned to them in the next few days.
In fact, Fehr was asked whether it’s possible to achieve a 50-50 split without changing escrow payments and he said, “Not without having very large escrow in the early years.” Which means, uh, no.
The next step for the Players’ Association will be to study the proposal and explain it to the 60-odd members of the executive board and the negotiating committee, which it is scheduled to do in a conference call Tuesday afternoon.
“I would like to believe that it will be an excellent starting point and that we can go forward and see if there’s a deal to be made,” Fehr said.
And with millions of fans looking for at least a scrap of hope that there will be hockey this season, that will have to serve as good news for the moment. Whether the NHL put forth an earnest proposal intent on saving the season or simply orchestrated a public relations effort will become known more in the coming days.
But at least it’s a start, eh? Forget about all the other days and all the rhetoric you’ve heard to this point. Today might just mark the day that negotiations began for real.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.