Commentary

DeCock: Finally, reason for optimism in NHL talks

ldecock@newsobserver.comOctober 16, 2012 

There’s an awful lot of fine print to sort through. Still, there’s no denying the new offer the NHL submitted Tuesday to the NHL Players’ Association is the biggest step yet toward getting the NHL back on the ice.

In a long, fraught negotiation that has offered very few signs of progress, this was a big one.

The NHL on Tuesday abandoned many of the more extreme proposals from its “Declaration of Labor War” offer this summer and ended up where most people think the NHL and NHLPA will end up eventually: a 50-50 split of revenue between players and owners.

If this works, the NHL intends to play a compressed, 82-game season beginning Nov. 2, preserving for both sides the (shared) revenue that goes with it.

A good start, but we’re not done yet. The players have acknowledged their share is going to decrease from the 57 percent they got under the old deal. The issue has always been getting there.

The owners spent the summer handing out scores of lucrative, long-term deals to everyone but the mascots before immediately pleading poverty the moment the labor agreement expired.

For the players, it has been a cornerstone of their negotiating position that they want the full value of the contracts they signed this summer, when both sides knew the terms of the deal would be changing soon.

An immediate drop to 50 percent would take a hefty chunk of players’ contracts through escrow, the process by which a portion of every paycheck is held until the end of the year, and players get some or all of it back to ensure that total salaries equal exactly the negotiated percentage.

Going from 57 to 50 percent would amount to an instant 12 percent pay cut the players don’t want to take, but NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said the league’s new offer acknowledges their position.

“We believe we addressed the concern that players have about what happens to their salaries as a result in this year of reducing the percentage from 57 to 50 percent,” Bettman said at a news conference in Toronto.

Bettman wouldn’t go into details, but reportedly, the players would get the current value of their contracts over the course of the new deal, a sort of reverse escrow through deferred payments.

Combine that contract protection with the NHL making only reasonable requests for changes to free agency, and you might just have the makings of a deal.

There are sticking points here for the players: the implementation of the contract protection will surely be examined closely; players are being asked to give up a year of unrestricted free agency and accept a maximum five-year contract length; and no one yet has talked about the Olympics, an important point for the players. (All of those details per John Shannon of Canada’s Sportsnet.)

The NHL also reportedly wants to include in the cap contracts of NHL players buried in the AHL.

Nevertheless, the broad strokes of the deal appear to be, if not completely acceptable to the NHLPA, a reasonable foundation for actual negotiations going forward.

“Our hope is, after we review this, there will be a feeling on the players’ side that this is a proposal from which we can negotiate and reach a conclusion,” NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr said in Toronto.

The NHLPA has just started analyzing the offer, and its eventual response will be telling. The puck is in the union’s end now.

At this moment, there’s more reason for optimism than there has been throughout this process, and for the first time in months, there’s reason to believe the NHL might actually play this season.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, Twitter: @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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