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Monday, October 22, 2012
This week is as big as they come for NHL

By Pierre LeBrun


Buckle up, hockey fans: Some important decisions are looming on the NHL’s labor front, even if there’s no assurance those decisions will lead to the resolution most want.

For owners and players who aspire to an 82-game season, it doesn't get any bigger than this week.

Time is running out to salvage the full season, the carrot at the end of the stick that commissioner Gary Bettman hoped would generate much-needed traction when he dropped a surprise new proposal on the table last Tuesday.

In a way it did, because the NHL Players’ Association countered two days later for the first time in this process using the numbers "50-50" in its official documentation.

Nonetheless, the league rejected all three proposals, the first two according to the league not guaranteeing a true 50-50 split of revenue because they were based on projected revenue growth, while the third offer -- the one that grabbed all the headlines -- offered 50-50 right off the top with the elephantlike caveat that all existing player contracts be honored. Crunch those numbers and, in the end, the league says that would see owners fork out $650 million over five years to cover the players’ existing contracts.

Although there hasn't been any official bargaining since Thursday, the two sides touched base this weekend with a pair of conference calls "to answer the PA's questions on our proposal as [they relate] to: (1) system-related issues and player contracting, and (2) HRR definitions and revenue sharing," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN.com via email Monday morning. The NHLPA's Steve Fehr did not respond to an email seeking comment.

One thing is abundantly clear as we enter this gigantic week: My guess is that the NHL will agree to get back in the bargaining room only if the NHLPA agrees to negotiate off the league’s offer from last Tuesday.

In a way, you could loosely argue the NHLPA’s No. 3 option from Thursday is partly a counter from the league’s proposal. The difference is that both sides came up with vastly different ways to "make whole" existing player contracts. The difference between the two proposals, of course, is that the league has players paying players in its "make whole" mechanism, while the players have owners paying players to come up with each other’s "make whole" formula.

In a message relayed Thursday in the bargaining room, the NHL reiterated to the NHLPA that it is willing to further discuss the "make whole" mechanism in a way in which might help more satisfy the players. This is where the real wiggle room exists. That is the key this week in finally getting the biggest breakthrough of all, finding a way to honor existing contracts, perhaps by finding a formula that dips both into the owners’ pockets as well as the players'. Is there a formula there that makes sense?

The other possibility, one which many have repeatedly pointed out, is a "phase-in" formula, starting the players at a higher percentage than 50 percent of hockey-related revenue in order to soften the escrow blow up front and help protect existing contracts as much as possible.

My gut tells me the league might be willing to start at 52 percent (for the players) on a phase-in scenario, while the players, I would guess, could potentially live with 54 percent. Gee, what’s the number between those two?

The pressure is on. At this point, a whole season can be saved. Once games start to get cancelled past Nov. 2, both owners and players start to lose money they won’t get back.

"If we end up missing and not rescheduling games through Nov. 2, we will have over $330 million in lost revenue," Daly told ESPN.com Monday morning.

No question, the league and owners want to instill the fear of God into players this week with that notion. As one NHL team executive told ESPN.com Sunday, there’s either a deal this week or there’s no season at all, because he believes the moderate owners who have pushed hard for a deal to be made will be so infuriated with players that they'll line up behind the hard-line owners and allow this thing to go nuclear if there’s no agreement.

I'm not ready to go that far. Labor negotiations in pro sports tend to produce fictitious deadlines that are moved when it's convenient. So I suspect if enough traction and progress has moved both sides closer by the end of this week, Bettman's Thursday deadline can be pushed a little.

But no matter how you look at it, if you’re an owner or a player who wants a full 82-game season, you want the leader on your side to deliver the goods this week.

Game on.