Friday, December 7, 2012
Sifting through the CBA wreckage
By Scott Burnside
NEW YORK -- Ever happen upon a nasty car crash and later think about the devastation and how it happened? Maybe how lucky you felt at having avoided it?
We thought of those kinds of things as we walked away from the smoldering wreckage that has become the labor negotiations between the NHL and the league’s players.
Here, then, are some random thoughts as we wait and see how things unfold:
We have heard that term a lot since the two sides began this macabre dance last summer. Does it matter? Of course. Think about your own relationships -- spouse, boss, friend, co-worker. If you don’t in your heart trust that they will be honest with you or that they will consider what you say with some sort of respect, then that relationship is scarred. It has been clear from the outset these two sides don’t trust each other. That lack of trust has impaired any kind of meaningful ongoing dialogue, and it has led to misleading the public and, in some ways, their own constituents. For smart, dynamic men like commissioner Gary Bettman, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr and their lieutenants, this negotiation is a smear on their reputations.
Junk Example 1
Fehr came to the media Thursday night and went on and on about how close he thought they were to a deal, when he had to know that the owners were going to reject the proposal because it didn’t meet their three areas of concern. The league asked for a yes-or-no answer from the players’ association on three pivotal issues: capping contracts at five years, a 10-year term for a new CBA and no buyouts or caps on escrow as part of the transition to a new deal. Instead of responding as the league asked, the union tried to negotiate those issues. Forget whether those issues are valid or not. Fehr’s act with players in attendance was shameful, a blatant attempt to paint the owners as the villains who walked away with a deal in the offing. It simply wasn’t true. Have to wonder what Sidney Crosby, a major player in these talks and one of the reasons for the rush of optimism that attached itself to talks earlier in the week, thought about the sad little drama that played out in a Manhattan hotel Thursday. Those are the kinds of petty stunts that can quickly erode a leader’s base of support.
Junk Example 2
There is no doubt that someone from the owners’ side told the players that if they wanted to bring Fehr back to the table after a couple of days of promising talks with just owners and players in the room, it was a potential deal-breaker. The league can spin how it went down, but it is clear such a message was conveyed to the players and there is no excuse for that. The owners may hate Fehr, and it’s clear he has got under the skin of the ownership group, but suck it up. He’s their guy and, if there’s a deal to be had here, it will be with Fehr at the table. The continued efforts to hack away at Fehr’s credibility with the players only galvanizes a membership that is mostly desperate to play hockey again. Another example of the league’s failed strategy.
One governor told us this week that the league and its players have created a textbook case for how not to engage in labor negotiations. So many smart people making stupid decisions.
Demands Or Negotiations?
The talks fell apart in large part because the players would not agree to three specific demands made by the owners. Lots of people will point to the players’ attempts to modify those elements as bargaining, that’s what you’re supposed to do in this situation, no? But the owners insist that they can’t or won’t move off those because they represent elements that are needed to offset concessions made to the players in other areas like make-whole money to help guarantee existing contracts. Our guess is that the league will move off at least one of those core issues.
The contract term is an interesting element because you can see both sides. First, does anyone in their right mind want to think about another of these soul-sucking negotiations in four, five or even six years? No. In order to get sponsors to come back to the charred NHL table, a long-term deal is essential. But Fehr points out that a deal that lasts a decade means that not just one generation, but likely two generations of players would end up playing under a CBA they didn’t vote for. Things change, he said. That’s why they would prefer a shorter deal, six years or so. We’re guessing that a final deal comes in around eight years.
Bill Daly said the five-year limit on salary length is "the hill they will die on." Wow. Holy hyperbole, Batman. But this is one of those issues that Bettman and Daly believe is critical to the long-term financial health of the league. They have been warning GMs for years now that they don’t like the long-term deals, especially those that are front-loaded with significant drop-offs in value as the contract moves along. There will be a provision to punish teams for those kinds of deals in a new CBA, but capping the length of contracts over the last CBA will be a central issue for the owners. Bettman pointed out that there was one contract six years or longer in 2004; now there are 90. “The trend has gone completely in the wrong way, and that has a whole host of consequences to the game and to the operation of our clubs,” Bettman said. The players don’t like it because it is another restrictive element, something that inhibits a player’s right to bargain freely with a team, but it’s hard to imagine players as a whole would lose a season over the five-year limit.
The commissioner made it clear that anything the owners offered to the players this week in New York was off the table, especially the offer of a $300 million in make-whole money to help guarantee existing contracts. Bettman reiterated that some owners wanted the make-whole money off the table before this week, and owners were shocked by the players’ lack of enthusiasm for the increased pot. So is it really gone? No way a deal gets done without make-whole monies. But this is where Fehr’s strategy gets delicate. The league has given more than they said they would on a number of issues, including make-whole. Will they give more? Fehr appears to think they will. But players will be wondering if they overplayed their hand if the owners won’t get back to that level of make-whole money again.
A Deal To Be Made?
Still, for all the chaos of the past 48 hours and the resounding thud with which talks ended, call us crazy, but we still think a deal gets done. Too much is at stake for both sides to get this close and not get the game back on the ice. Bettman said he can’t imagine playing a schedule of less than 48 games, so we’re guessing games would have to start no later than the end of the month. We are hearing some quiet buzz about a New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day start. Works for us.