Commentary

How did the lockout get to this point?

Updated: December 24, 2012, 10:48 AM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

We do a lot of reflection as we close out a year and get set for a new one.

Looking back at the NHL labor negotiations in 2012 is akin to that sensation you get when you scratch your fingernails down a blackboard.

But revisit this sordid (and still unfinished) saga from the start we will.

Let's flip back the calendar to Jan. 28, All-Star Weekend in Ottawa. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr held separate media availabilities following the board of governors meeting, with the expiring CBA and future labor talks front and center as the discussion point.

At the time, Fehr communicated to the media that his side wasn't quite ready to commence talks yet. In fact, talks wouldn't begin until five months later.

And then there was this comment from the commissioner that day: "My hope is that we can reason together and that collective bargaining will be painless and quiet and quick. That would serve everyone's best interest."

Bettman My hope is that we can reason together and that collective bargaining will be painless and quiet and quick. That would serve everyone's best interest.

-- Gary Bettman on Jan. 28

As he said, that was his hope. But it certainly wasn't reality.

Finally, on June 29, months after the NHL would have preferred to start negotiations, collective bargaining got under way in New York with the league delivering a financial presentation -- aka, its view of the world.

What ensued was a fairly steady summer schedule of sessions, 24 meetings between both sides from June 29 through Aug. 31 in New York and Toronto.

The key moment in those summer meetings was the NHL's first official proposal on July 13 -- a day that would end up having a much bigger impact on these negotiations than anyone would have anticipated. The league's offer called for the players' share of hockey-related revenue to drop from 57 percent to 43 percent.

For all those players who were doing their best to ignore labor talks in the dead of summer, that offer woke them up like a cold shower.

"Yeah, I was there for the July 13 proposal the NHL gave us," San Jose Sharks center Logan Couture told ESPN.com in mid-December. "That really rubbed me the wrong way the way they approached that."

Player after player after player told us throughout this lockout that the July 13 offer galvanized them like nothing else could have. In many ways, it set the tone for the level of mistrust that has poisoned this negotiation.

The NHLPA countered with its first proposal in mid-August, the NHL made another proposal Aug. 28, then both sides made proposals to each other on Sept. 12, three days before the lockout commenced.

And of course, they were never close at all on the core economic issues in any of those proposals and counterproposals.

In early September, we interviewed both Donald Fehr and Bill Daly to get a sense of where things were.

Two key comments stand out from those interviews.

1. Daly on why the NHL so desperately needs the players to go down from 57 percent of HRR:

[+] EnlargeNHL Players' Association
Chris Young/AP PhotoDozens of players, like Steven Stamkos, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, have attended at least some of the bargaining sessions this year.

"Our experience has shown that 57 percent to the players is too much," Daly said. "Particularly in an economic environment that's changed significantly in a situation where Canadian currency and the value of Canadian currency has changed dramatically, in an environment where generating revenues and the cost of generating revenues has become more significant. And the bottom line is, 54 percent where we started with going to 57 percent where we currently are, is just too much."

2. Fehr on the resolve of the players with the lockout on the horizon:

"I've been involved in a lot of disputes before 1996, none since then until now," said Fehr, the former longtime baseball union head. "But there was a constant underestimation of the players' resolve. I don't know what to do about that but I just wish it wouldn't happen. It would make things easier."

The lockout commenced Sept. 15, followed by a few fruitless meetings in late September and early October.

Finally, there was a shot of adrenaline to the process on Oct. 16. The NHL came to Toronto and tabled a new proposal that called for a 50-50 split of HRR and an 82-game season beginning Nov. 2. But the deal was contingent on the players accepting it by Oct. 25.

The NHL also took the unusual step of releasing the entire proposal in detail on its website the next day, Oct. 17, in a clear attempt to make sure all 700-plus players got a direct read of it and not just the version that they would get from Fehr. This would once again illustrate the incredible distrust between the two sides in these negotiations.

Hockey fans, meanwhile, were swept up in a wave of hope, many of them believing this NHL offer could actually end the lockout.

Instead, on Oct. 18 at the NHLPA offices in Toronto, the players responded with three counteroffers, which were quickly rejected by the NHL.

Bettman told reporters after the short meeting that he was "thoroughly disappointed."

"I am concerned based on the proposal that was made today that things are not progressing," he said. "To the contrary, I view the proposal made by the players' association in many ways a step backward."

The manner in which the NHL quickly dismissed the NHLPA counteroffers angered the players, especially those in the room that day, which included the likes of Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and Shane Doan.

"I was glad I was in the room. It was important. I wanted to be there, it was interesting to see how it went and how it works," Doan told ESPN.com in November. "And in that particular moment, we had agreed to come down to 50-50. That was a fairly large concession by the players. From watching when Gary walked out and said 'They took a step backwards.' That galvanized the players."

Indeed, lost in the negative narrative of that Oct. 18 implosion in talks was the fact that for the very first time in these negotiations, some four months after they all began, the NHLPA had officially written down "50-50" on a piece of paper. That's hugely significant because there's no going back after that moment. This was the number the NHL wanted all along.

Problem is, it wasn't a real 50-50 yet. In the Oct. 18 offer, the players wanted the owners to fully protect all existing contracts from any kind of financial erosion. It called for owners to fork over well over $600 million in "make-whole" protection.

"The so-called 50-50 deal, plus honoring current contracts proposed by the NHL Players' Association earlier today, is being misrepresented," Daly said that day. "It is not a 50-50 deal. It is, most likely a 56 to 57 percent deal in Year 1 and never gets to 50 percent during the proposed five-year term of the agreement.

"The proposal contemplates paying the players approximately $650 million outside of the players' share. In effect, the union is proposing to change the accounting rules to be able to say '50-50,' when in reality it is not. The union told us that they had not yet 'run the numbers.' We did."

Still, in some form or another, 50-50 was now on the table and both sides would be working off that premise moving forward.

Daly
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesNHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly called capping player contracts at five years, "the hill we [the league] will die on."

The NHL's Oct. 25 deadline for the NHLPA to accept its Oct. 16 offer came and went without the players blinking, leading Bettman to pull the offer off the table, cancel games through Nov. 30, and then the big whammy a few days later on Nov. 2: The NHL canceled the Winter Classic, which was to be played Jan. 1 at the Big House in Ann Arbor, Mich., between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings.

But what should have put a chill on labor talks actually did the opposite as Daly and his No. 2 counterpart at the NHLPA, Steve Fehr, met Nov. 3 at an undisclosed location (later found out to be Chicago) and tried to find some common ground to re-establish talks.

Indeed, the two sides formally met in New York the following week and, for the first time in the entire negotiation, met four straight days, once again fueling hope that finally the two sides were getting somewhere.

Instead, the talks blew up on the Friday of that week, capped by a heated exchange between player Chris Campoli and owner Craig Leipold in the meeting.

The key development in the week was the NHL's offer to fund the "make-whole" provision with $211 million of the owners' money. But Fehr called it way short of what the players need.

Talks were blown up again. And the frustration among fans grew.

Hope was once again renewed in late November when U.S. federal mediators entered the picture for two straight days of meetings. But it produced absolutely no movement.

Then came early December and a new approach fueled by back-channel talks between powerful agent Pat Brisson and Penguins owner Ron Burkle. Bettman agreed to withdraw from the next set of bargaining meetings if Fehr would also agree to do the same, instead leaving the room to six owners and 18 players. The Dec. 4-5 meetings produced some traction, as the players were impressed with Burkle's approach.

To highlight this sense of optimism, Daly and Steve Fehr actually held a media availability together on the first night and agreed that Dec. 4 had been perhaps the best day in the entire negotiation.

Hockey fans were excited. There were reports of coaches making plans for training camp.

The next day, Dec. 5, the owners in the room pushed the "make-whole" provision to $300 million in a new offer that also dropped the league's attempts to change salary arbitration, the UFA age eligibility and the entry-level system. But most notably, the league still wanted to limit player contracts to five years (seven years for players re-signing with their own teams). Burkle and the owners pressed the players hard late into the night/early morning to get an answer. At that point, the players announced they needed Donald Fehr back in the room in order to take the next step.

Somehow, this is where the whole thing imploded. The players, with Donald Fehr now in the room on Dec. 6, provided a counteroffer, but were surprised and disappointed when only Daly and lawyer Bob Batterman showed up for the meeting.

The players showed movement in key areas, notably a willingness to cap player contracts at eight years. But the NHL didn't want a counteroffer that day; it wanted a simple yes or no to its offer from the night before.

In perhaps one of the strangest and more theatrical days in the history of the NHL, Fehr and the players hosted a news conference listing all the key elements where they believed the league and the union had found agreement. About 15 minutes after that news conference, the NHLPA held another news conference to announce the NHL had left a voicemail saying it had rejected the NHLPA's counteroffer.

About an hour later, Bettman and Daly addressed the media and the two lead NHL negotiators were visibly angered by the day's events, saying the two sides in fact were not that close at all and hammering Fehr for saying so.

Regarding the NHL's desire to cap player contracts at five years, Daly -- steam coming out of his ears -- said it's "the hill we [the league] will die on."

The moderates on both sides were alarmed. People from both sides reached out to ESPN.com and insisted the deal wasn't far off at all. But the emotion and the politics were taking over the negotiations.

One week later, word leaked on Dec. 14 that the NHLPA's executive board voted to ask the 700-plus players at large to vote on whether or not to authorize the board to have the right to file a disclaimer of interest.

The NHL responded aggressively by filing a class-action suit in U.S. federal court asking the court to rule on the legality of the lockout. It's a pre-emptive strike by the NHL. In the meantime, moderates on both sides continued to work the back channels in the hope of getting talks resumed.

It's clear the first seven to 10 days of January will likely decide whether or not there's a season this winter. Either a deal finally gets done to salvage a 48- or 50-game season, or the NHL cancels an entire season for the second time in eight years.

And if it's the latter, we'll be back a year from now to revisit 2013 and the year on the NHL labor beat. Because if there's no season to come, this story is far from over.