Cautious optimism in NHL talks

League proposal would split revenue 50-50, preserve whole season

calexander@newsobserver.comOctober 18, 2012 

A day after NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said he does not negotiate publicly, the league on Wednesday posted its proposal for a collective bargaining agreement on its website.

The league said the unusual move and “full explanation” were necessary because of incorrect leaks made Tuesday to the media about the details of the offer. But the posting also put pressure on the NHL Players Association, which may make a counter-proposal Thursday when the labor meetings resume in Toronto.

The league’s proposal offered a 50-50 split of hockey-related revenue and an offer to “make whole” player contracts through deferred compensation. Bettman said it would preserve the full 82-game season, but said the offer was contingent on the season beginning Nov. 2.

“I think it was a meaningful step in the right direction,” Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Jay Harrison said Wednesday. “The term I’d like to use is we’re cautiously optimistic that this is a step toward real negotiations. This is the spark that could start the fire of true dialogue.”

The NHL’s proposal was the first formal offer made by either side since the NHL locked out the players Sept. 16 following the expiration of the CBA. NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr called the offer an “excellent start” after Tuesday’s labor meeting, but was more caustic in an email communication to the players later Tuesday.

Fehr’s response, reported Wednesday by TSN hockey analyst Bob McKenzie, called the new proposal slightly less “Draconian” than the first two made by the league, and said it called for “very large, immediate and continuing concessions” by the players.

The players received 57 percent of hockey-related revenue (HRR) under the old CBA – $1.88 billion last season. The league’s first proposal was for a reduction of the players’ share to 43 percent. The NHL later made a counter-proposal with a reduction to 47 percent during a six-year CBA.

The proposal Tuesday was for six years, with a mutual option for a seventh. It would limit player contracts to five years in length and close the loopholes that have allowed teams to sign players to long, front-loaded contracts. It also would prevent teams from circumventing the salary cap by placing underperforming players with big salaries in the minor leagues.

Bettman said Tuesday the NHL offer would not result in a rollback in existing contracts. The “make whole” provision says the money a player would give up the next two years – as the HRR share is cut from 57 to 50 percent – would be paid back as deferred compensation in the course of the contract.

Fehr, according to the excerpts from his letter, referred to that plan as “players paying players.” He said players are “made whole” for reduced salaries in one year by reducing their salaries in later years.

Noting the growth of the league since 2005 and the $3.3 billion in revenue last year, Fehr wrote there was no reason for a reduction in HRR share.

Despite Fehr’s concerns, the proposal did provide traction in the labor talks that had been missing. It also had hockey fans flocking to Twitter, many hopeful a deal could soon be struck and the season saved.

Eric Staal, the Hurricanes’ captain, joined Harrison and other teammates Wednesday at Raleigh Center Ice and appeared upbeat.

“It’s obviously been a frustrating time, kind of being in limbo and both sides unsure of where we were headed,” Staal said. “I think this is something us as an association can take a hard look at ... and hopefully get back to the table and hammer something out so we can get a season in.

“We’ll see in the next couple of days how the conversation goes. But it definitely brings you some optimism.”

Staal said he wished the proposal had been forwarded in July or August, not mid-October. Asked why the league didn’t do that, he said, “Why didn’t they? Because they were trying to wait and see what they could get. I guess that’s a part of their negotiating tactic. Don (Fehr) has kind of said that: lockout first and then go from there.

“I think we need to be smart enough to know this is an offer we can hopefully take a look at, study and get to the table and try and hammer out a deal.”

Alexander: 919-829-8945

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