Gary Bettman and the owners want an immediate clawback in player salaries, while players want contracts honored. (Getty Images)
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman came to the microphone after meeting with the NHL Players’ Association Thursday afternoon and if you looked closely enough, you could see traces of smoke coming out of his ears.
No matter how dire the circumstances, no matter how much pressure is being applied, Bettman almost never gets flustered. In his Bettman biography, The Instigator, Jonathan Gatehouse tells a story of how Bettman was participating in a conference call from his car while working for the NBA. His car hit some ice and as he careened off the road at full speed, he calmly informed his colleagues, “I think you’re going to hear a crash in a moment.”
As talks with the NHLPA that began with so much optimism flew off the rails so dramatically Thursday afternoon, there was no such serenity being displayed by Bettman, who was visibly disturbed by the turn of events. All of that coincided with NHLPA executive Donald Fehr showing his very sharp teeth for the first time since taking over the hockey union. There was no shortage of sniping from both heads of state, who were flanked by their most powerful allies on the ownership and player sides. And two days after it looked like there would be a sliver of hope, both Bettman and Fehr look as though they’re perfectly content to dig their heels in on their principles.
There were a dizzying array of numbers tossed around by both sides, but the bottom line is this – the NHL wants to achieve a 50-50 split in revenues with the players before the next puck is dropped. The players are willing to do their part, but want no part of having the salaries on existing contracts cut by even one penny.
“It’s clear we’re not talking the same language,” said Bettman, uttering the kind of rhetoric nobody likes to hear in a dispute. “The proposal that was made today, things are not progressing. To the contrary - the proposal that was made by the players’ association was a step backward.”
The players presented the owners with three different models they claimed would eventually get the league down to a 50-50 split in revenues and ensure the players who are signed would receive the full value of their contracts. But Fehr said the league dismissed all of them in record time.
“After the proposal was made, they did what they’ve done before,” Fehr said. “They take a very few minutes - they don’t think about it very much, they don’t analyze it, they don’t talk to the other owners, they don’t do anything. They take less than 10 minutes, maybe it was 15…and we are told two things. All three proposals are rejected in their entirety and secondly, the proposal we recently got is their best offer.
“If you had been in the room, the vibe you got in the room was, ‘If you’re not going to sign, don’t bother us.’ ”
Fehr questioned why the league would table its so-called best offer four weeks into a lockout, and it’s a legitimate question. The players are also wondering who in their right minds would take a reduction in pay for a contract into which both sides supposedly entered into in good faith. Again, another excellent point. The players are clearly occupying the higher moral ground here, but the only problem with that is, it’s not getting any of them one iota closer to playing hockey.
The owners, meanwhile, are not making a single concession here. Everything they’re proposing is a claw back from the players. Or as Shane Doan of the Phoenix Coyotes put it, “When people ask for money, they usually say, ‘Give me your money or I’m going to hurt you.’ They don’t say, ‘Give me your money and I’m going to hurt you.’ ”
But just because they’ve messed up their beds in previous collective bargaining agreements doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to try to get a deal that corrects their mistakes and saves them from themselves. And all of you out there who are saying, ‘I don’t care about the numbers, get a deal done,’ should realize the league has done exactly that in the past to get the game back on the ice and created problems for itself every time.
The NHLPA offered three options, the first of which would have had the owners and players sharing 50 percent of revenues by the third year of the deal, based on an annual growth of 7.2 percent. If that growth was more dramatic, the 50-50 split would happen more quickly. The players claim the option would save the owners $800 million if revenues grow five percent and $1.1 billion if they grow 7.2 percent.
The second option would have achieved the 50-50 split by the fifth year of the deal by basically giving the players a total of $1.833 billion - which is what they received last year - plus 24.7 percent of new revenues until the 50-50 split is achieved. They said the league would save $854 million with five percent growth, $1.06 billion with 7.2 percent growth.
The third option would propose an immediate 50-50 split, provided all contracts signed before the lockout are paid in full. A 50-50 split in revenues would account for a 13 percent cut in players’ salaries, so that 13 percent would be put aside and paid to the players, with the other 87 percent being subject to the salary cap and the 50-50 split. This would also, the players say, get the league to the 50-50 split in Year 5 of the agreement as current contracts expire.
Fehr acknowledged the third proposal was a late one and the NHLPA didn’t have time to run the numbers, but the league immediately put out a release saying the deal starts out with the players receiving between 56 and 57 percent of the revenues and does not get down to 50-50 in the five years of the deal.
This is going to get nasty now. The league, which is obviously much more concerned with currying public favor, had its commissioner stand in front of the world and tell everyone that the offer it made Tuesday was its absolute best offer. “We gave the players’ association what we had to give,” he said.
That’s rich. At the very least, it’s a curious time to put all your cards on the table. And as Fehr points out, an offer full of concessions after seven years of record growth is not all the league has to give. And that’s why he’s been able to convince the players this is a bad deal for them.
“Today is not a good day,” Fehr said. “It should have been, but it wasn’t.”
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.