NHL turns aside players' latest offer

Though things were looking up, war of words resumes

calexander@newsobserver.comDecember 7, 2012 

For a few fleeting minutes Thursday night, it appeared the National Hockey League might soon be back on the ice.

Then, in a matter of minutes, the labor negotiations grew chilly again.

After lengthy and promising collective bargaining discussions Tuesday and Wednesday in New York involving NHL owners and players – both sides used the word “candid” – the NHL Players Association made a proposal Thursday it believed could end the lockout and jump-start the 2012-13 season.

NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr told the media there was agreement with the league on some of the major CBA issues, leading many to wonder if the labor impasse was nearing an end.

But soon after Fehr left the media briefing, he was back in front of the microphone. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, he said, had left a voicemail saying the proposal was “not acceptable.”

Just like that, it was back to crisis mode. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman later told reporters no drop-dead date had been set for canceling the season, but he said the league would need to play at least 48 games to maintain the integrity of a season.

The entire 2004-05 season was lost because of labor issues and haggling over a CBA. Bettman canceled the season in February 2005, but could make the call sooner this time if there is no CBA resolution in the next few weeks.

All in all, Thursday was a topsy-turvy day of optimism, anger and accusations. Bettman was clearly frustrated – and mad at Fehr, who he claimed had made misleading comments.

“A great deal of optimism almost inexplicably disappeared,” Bettman said. “I am disappointed beyond belief.”

Bettman said the “make whole” provision for honoring player contracts, a key component in the league proposal, now would be pulled from the table. The NHL had offered to take $300 million from its share of hockey-related revenue (HRR) to “make whole” the contracts during the length of the CBA.

The league is seeking a 10-year CBA that has an opt-out after eight years. The union countered with an eight-year CBA with an opt-out after six years.

The league also proposed that new contracts be limited to five years in length; the union wanted eight years.

Daly said the league would not budge off the demand for a 10-year CBA or the five-year limits, which he called “a hill we will die on.”

At Bettman’s request, six owners and 18 players met Tuesday and Wednesday, with Bettman and Fehr out of the room. The Tuesday sessions, the owners agreed, were productive, informative and encouraging.

But the owners claimed the tone of the meetings changed Wednesday. The players, they said, focused on other issues and had other demands.

The players requested that Fehr rejoin the meetings Thursday. Bettman again stayed away and the meeting – with four owners in attendance – was brief.

“I must admit that I was shocked at how things have played out over the last 48 hours,” Toronto Maple Leafs owner Larry Tanenbaum said. “The sessions on Tuesday felt cooperative with an air of goodwill. I was optimistic and conveyed my optimism to the board of governors at our Wednesday meeting.

“However, when we reconvened with the players on Wednesday afternoon, it was like someone had thrown a switch. … I question whether the union is interested in making an agreement.”

Alexander: 919-829-8945

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