Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 18, 2012

After A Whiplash Week, NHL Fans Face A Season On The Brink

Hockey fans have been subjected to a roller coaster ride of emotions this week. One month into the NHL’s lockout of players there was little cause for optimism on Monday. The entire preseason and the first two weeks of regular season games had already been cancelled; and more than 120 players had left the country to skate for clubs in Europe or Russia. while there were sporadic talks between the owners and the players’ association public comments from both sides made it clear that any negotiating was strictly on ancillary issues and not the core matter of how the more than $3.3 billion of annual league revenue was to be divided between those who watch the games from the owners’ luxury suites and those who actually skate on the ice.

Then on Tuesday afternoon somnolent hockey fans were jolted awake by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s announcement that the league had put a comprehensive new proposal on the table. On the key issue of the revenue split, the league proposed a 50-50 division between owners and players, a significant increase over the owners’ original plan to slash the amount of revenue dedicated to salaries from the current 57% down to 43%. While lowering the salary cap from last season’s $70.2 million to $59.9 million for the 2012-13 season, the proposal allowed teams to exceed the cap during a one-year “transition” period as well as mechanisms that Bettman said were designed to ensure that current contracts, predicated on the old revenue split, would be honored. The new offer also included a one-third increase, to $200 million for this year, in the revenue sharing pool which transfers money from well-off, big market teams to struggling franchises.

But what really brought hope to fans and set the Twitter universe alive was Bettman’s proclamation that the purpose of the offer was to preserve a full 82-game season. To do that, the Commissioner said, a final agreement had to be reached by October 25th; so that training camps could open the following day and the regular season begin on November 2nd.

Wednesday the league took the extraordinary step of publicly releasing the documents that had been given to the players’ association. The summary of the new offer was dramatically entitled “NHL Proposal to Save 82 Game Season.” Accompanying it was a lengthy and detailed explanation of the various points included in the offer. Media outlets hailed the proposal and fans tweeted their delight. Negotiations that had seemed dead in the water had in an instant been replaced by significant concessions on the part of the owners. Surely a full NHL season, complete with the New Year’s Day outdoor Winter Classic in front of more than 100,000 fans at Michigan Stadium, was about to be pulled out of the ashes.

But the euphoria began to ebb as various media outlets obtained a copy of a letter from union head Donald Fehr to his members. As Fehr made clear, the association’s initial response to the new offer was hardly enthusiastic. He characterized the offer as “not quite as Draconian as their previous proposals,” while arguing that it would result in a 12.3% pay cut for this season, and the loss of $1.6 billion in players’ salaries over the life of the agreement. Fehr also took issue with the make whole provision for current contracts, arguing that it would just result in lower salaries in later years; and he reminded players that there was still no agreement on the definition of “hockey related revenue,” meaning no one could say for certain how much money was going to be split 50-50 under the owners’ proposal.

The closest thing to positive words came at the end of Fehr’s letter, when he wrote “We do not yet know whether this proposal is a serious attempt to negotiate an agreement, or just another step down the road. The next several days will be, in large part, an effort to discover the answer to that question.” That at least implied a willingness to renew serious talks between the two sides; and on Thursday they met in Toronto so the union could formally respond to the league’s offer. Backed by a contingent of eighteen players, including superstar Sidney Crosby and the captains of four other teams, Fehr presented three different counter-offers. In very short order Bettman and the owners rejected all three. This despite the fact that the league had given no indication that the Tuesday proposal was, in essence, a take it or leave it offer. “We are nowhere close,” said the Commissioner after the brief meeting. Minutes later Fehr agreed, saying “Today is not a good day. It should have been, but it wasn’t.” With that hockey fans were plunged back into a state of depression.

Both the language and the tone from both sides are especially worrisome. What seemed a promising restart to talks dissolved into acrimony in just 48 hours, and the calendar is now working against the hopes of fans. If the two sides aren’t even talking there is no reason to suppose that the league will wait until the end of next week before cancelling more games, and the air is thick with rumors that this time the number of games lost will be far greater than the two weeks of regular season contests already axed. To some degree both sides, though in particular the owners, seem preoccupied with spinning their position for favorable public consumption rather than actually negotiating. But they shouldn’t need a focus group to tell them that if a significant portion of the NHL season is blown away there will be no winners in the eyes of the people who pay to fill the arenas and buy the concessions and souvenirs. Fans will have more than enough anger to direct it equally at owners and players alike.

There are probably no two more determined and stubborn labor negotiators than Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr. In the past, both have used those traits to achieve much of what their employers have sought; Bettman for the owners during the last NHL lockout and Fehr for ballplayers in the ‘90s. As the dwindling sand runs through the hourglass the question for both men is whether they will realize that they also have a shared responsibility to the fans; or whether that rather obvious thought won’t occur to either of them until it is too late.

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