Grange on CBA: All talk; No Trust, No progress

November 10, 2012, 4:44 AM

New York — Remember when the negotiations between the NHL and the players association were being held in a secret place?

Remember when there was little discussion or leaks or even speculation about what the substance of the talks covered?

If you’re a hockey fan, remember those days earlier this week – otherwise known as Tuesday and Wednesday, with a faint hint of Thursday – fondly.

Because Friday blew them all to hell. Let’s just hope that the prospect of an NHL season – or at least a meaningful one that starts before Christmas didn’t go down in flames with it.

It’s hard to summarize where the spin starts and ends, but simply put: nearly five months since negotiations on a new CBA began and entering Day 56 of the lockout there is no trust, there is very little common ground and rather than two sides inching ever closer together, they seem to be digging in.

There were multiple items on the agenda of three separate meetings at the NHL’ s law offices near Times Square, but the only one that mattered was the final session involving how to split league revenues and what the future of the contracts rights between the players and the owners might be.

For just a sample of how things are going, consider NHLPA executive Don Fehr’s explanation of how one line of discussion went:

“At one point the question was asked [of the owners]: If the players were to agree – which they’re not prepared to do – to everything in your financial proposal, what you’re saying is you still won’t make an agreement unless we give up everything in all the player contracting rights in your proposal. The answer was yes, that’s what we want.

“Now that’s not a direct quote, but one wonders if that’s the case how you get there from here.”

Great question.

That meeting broke up at about 6:00 p.m. and a flustered seeming NHLPA executive director made no comment other than he had "some things to consider” before rushing off to a scheduled conference call with his negotiation committee and team player reps, a group of about 60.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman soon emerged and also had little say, other than they were prepared to meet through the weekend and he would even refrain from attending the Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Toronto on Monday if CBA talks required it. “Whatever it takes,” he said.

The commissioner may have looked calm but he belied the furious paddling going on underneath the surface.

First came a report from the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Michael Russo that the owners were angry that the substance of their offer to the players on Thursday hadn’t been properly communicated to the players in a memo from Fehr that surfaced Friday morning.

In it Fehr emphasized the owner’s determination to immediately reset players’ share of HRR to 50-50 in the first year of a deal but offered no detail on the owners so-called ‘make whole provision’.

Details later emerged the owners did want the players to take a 50 per cent share of HRR immediately (down from their 57 per cent share last year) but were willing to guarantee $211 million in deferred money that would be paid out in years two and years three, with interest.

Meanwhile reports – inaccurate it turns out – began circulating that the players were seeking a deal that started at what their share was last year ($1.883-billion) and increased in guaranteed increments of five per cent annually.

Not surprisingly Don Fehr was eager to address this. If there was one issue that struck closer to the bone than the rest it was the implication that he’s been less than transparent with his members.

“First of all, understand [the players'] proposal is made in front of players, in the room, here,” Fehr said. “It’s made in front of staff, it’s made in front of former players who hear it. They’re on the phone, talking about it … owners can’t come to the meetings and hear for themselves, but every single player can at the union’s expense.

“It is accurate to say if you write a memo and it’s a quick one, you necessarily have to summarize,” he said. “But everything we do in terms of communications ends with ‘if you have a question, contact us.’ We let them know if they want to come to a meeting contact us and they will have a plane ticket and a hotel room.”

As for the substance of the owners’ ‘make whole’ proposal, Fehr wasn’t all that enthused either: “If the notion is they’re honouring all the contracts and everyone is getting paid what they’re supposed to be paid according to the letter of the contracts that’s not true and never has been,” he said. “I don’t know where that notion came from.”

And finally he clarified the players’ proposal, acknowledging that the players do want to use the $1.883-billion they earned in aggregate last year as a starting point, but that the increases through the life of the agreement would be 1.75 per cent of HRR.

Those that have been following the lockout closely would recognize the problem there however: the owners only want to play the players about $1.65 billion next year.

How to bridge the gap between the roughly $1.91 billion the players want to be paid next year and what the owners are willing to pay them remains a massive issue in a labour negotiation that is going nowhere at the moment.

And here’s another bit of sunshine for you: in the midst of the back-and-forth Friday emerged another new front in a battle in which both sides are bleeding, the only question being how badly.

The players have indicated that they expect to be paid their full share for the 2012-13 season, regardless of how many games are played. The owners, in other words, should pay every cent of the costs incurred by the lockout.

If you don’t think things have gotten contentious yet, wait till they start trying to hash that one out.

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