Donald Fehr is believed to extended a helping hand to NHL owners in smaller markets with the NHLPA's proposal. (Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images Sport)
Remember when some people portrayed NHLPA executive Don Fehr as professional hockey’s newest boogeyman, as an ogre who valued profit above oxygen and the love of close friends and family? Those folks ought to be hanging their heads in shame after the players union’s first collective bargaining proposal to NHL owners Tuesday.
The players’ first labor offer showed a reborn, far more realistic NHLPA than the one that stubbornly stuck to its party line in 2004. Back then, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman could have told union kingpin Bob Goodenow the zipper of his pants were undone and Goodenow would have proudly strode around with his undershorts exposed out of sheer spite. Such was the level of rancor between the two parties – and the barely veiled hate was a chief reason owners were so intransigent in their demands. The players swore they’d be against a hard salary cap come hell or high water and when both did in fact come in the form of cancelled season, they buckled under the weight of their own personal monetary pressures.
But rather than employ a similarly militant approach to negotiations this time around, Fehr and the players have taken the NHL’s arrogant, scorched-earth first offer – featuring drastic clawbacks on the union’s 57 percent share of all hockey-related revenue, as well as draconian clampdowns on all aspects of player movement and free agency – and answered with a crafty, creative reply that goes a long ways toward addressing the owners’ publicly stated concerns.
The biggest issue, of course, is the divvying up of hockey-related revenue between both sides. Although full details of the PA’s proposal haven’t been made available, the players indicated Tuesday they’re willing to take less money in future years via a drag on salaries and assist unprofitable franchises via an increased revenue-sharing program. (Blogger Tyler Dellow has a thorough analysis of the rumored components of the NHLPA offer here.)
In tabling the offer, Fehr sent a message to Bettman and his owners that the PA wouldn’t play along with the framing of the issue as an owner-player problem. He sees it as an owner-owner problem and while his offer includes the players as part of the solution, it does so only if big-market, incredibly successful organizations are willing to step up as well. And to throw those big markets a bone in return for giving up a higher percentage of their profit, Fehr and the players have proposed a loosening of some of the current hard salary cap rules (e.g. allowing teams to “trade” a relatively small amount of salary cap space) that would allow them to flex more of their financial muscle.
As many expected, Fehr’s solution (or at least, his negotiating stance) is predicated on exploiting the differences between the NHL’s have and have-not franchises. It’s designed to lay bare the true intent of the owners in this negotiation. It isn’t a perfect document in its reliance on keeping much of the status quo intact – to imagine the owners will relent on saddle-burr issues such as capping length of contracts and front-loading of deals is to dream in 3-D, IMAX-screen-sized Technicolor – but it represents a much more reasonable starting point for future talks than did the league’s initial, hyper-aggressive stance.
Eight years ago, the players were the pigheaded myopians in the collective bargaining equation, unwilling to look past the end of their own noses and interests. But Fehr’s offer has turned the tables. Now, the owners are the ones who must demonstrate they can be flexible and interested in the other side’s perspective. They won’t accept the players’ first offer just as the players laughed at Bettman’s, but they can’t hang their hats on the NHLPA’s hysterical blindness to their concerns as they did during the last set of labor talks.
That doesn’t mean the 2012-13 season is going to start on time. There are more than enough hockey people out there who believe the owners will continue to leverage their natural financial advantage over the players for as long as possible – a length that still could extend to the New Year’s Winter Classic and potentially beyond.
But if we lose NHL games or an entire season for the second time in less than a decade, it won’t be because the players lived and died on one particular principle as they did in 2004. It will be because Bettman and the owners grabbed the union by the ankles, held them upside down and refused to stop shaking them until every possible coin fell to the ground.
Don Fehr a boogeyman? Only to those who believe a partnership between players and owners involves the former’s total capitulation to the latter’s naked avarice.
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His Power Rankings appear Mondays during the regular season, his column appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature Fridays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.