Frank Seravalli: Twisting in the spin of NHL labor talks

Posted: September 14, 2012

NEW YORK - Flanked by two beefy players, NHL Players' Association executive director Donald Fehr took to the microphone Wednesday night to address the media before conducting a meeting with more than 300 of his constituents at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square.

Fehr wanted to be the first to explain the NHL's latest proposals to his players present, including nine current Flyers, but had been beaten to the punch by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman - who leaked details hours earlier in a news conference.

Bettman said the NHL made another "meaningful" proposal, pushing back another $250 million to $300 million toward the players' side. In all, the NHL has put back nearly $700 million on the table.

Fehr was quick to shoot down the NHL's proposal, saying it was as if the owners went from asking for an "extraordinarily large amount" to a "really very big amount."

Depending on which side your loyalties lie, if any, there is enough spin being doctored to make your head fall off. The bare fact of the matter: Yes, the NHL did make a concession on Wednesday from their original July 13 offer. The players, according to Fehr, still view it as nothing short of ridiculous.

Currently, NHL players receive 57 percent of revenue. The July 13 offer sought to bring the players' share to 43 percent. On Aug. 28, the number moved to 46 percent. On Wednesday, the NHL offered a 6-year term with the number starting at 49 percent before bottoming out at 47 percent by the end of the deal.

Since negotiations first began in late June, the players have put up an innocent front, reiterating over and over that "all we want to do is play." Here is their chance to step up to the plate.

The NFL and NBA bargained their players down to 48.5 percent and 49 percent respectively. The precedent has been set. The players are taking a haircut and they know it - it's just a matter of how close the shave.

The hangup is that neither the NFL nor NBA players had their current contracts honored to every penny. The NHL is no longer asking for a rollback, just more in escrow. Bettman says it comes to between 7 percent and 9 percent per season. Fehr says it could be "50 percent more" than Bettman's estimate.

"The nature of escrow is: 'I want to not pay everything that the contract says I'm supposed to pay.' That's why, to an extent, it's the same thing as a rollback," Fehr said. "It doesn't impact individual contracts, but it's essentially the same thing."

The NHLPA's proposal from Wednesday, on an entirely different platform than the NHL, does include a decrease in player revenue share but wants players to get a cut if record revenues continue to roll in. The two sides aren't even negotiating with common principles yet.

Bettman offered an ultimatum Wednesday, saying the league will withdraw its current offer if not accepted by the time the current labor agreement expires on Saturday night. Fehr said he would take Bettman at his word.

For Fehr, having 300 players in New York - including Scott Hartnell, Braydon Coburn, Max Talbot, Jody Shelley, Ilya Bryzgalov, Danny Briere, Brayden and Luke Schenn, Matt Read and Claude Giroux - is little more than a staged photo op. The former MLBPA union leader has done a marvelous job keeping his players unified - but that is why he wanted to control the message on Wednesday, rather than have Bettman drop the bomb that the owners are coming around.

Some players, especially those who survived the last lockout, are starting to get antsy. Players only receive 13 paychecks a season - bimonthly beginning Oct. 15. Each paycheck lost is one that will never return.

Fehr has 700 total players - some older, some younger, some filthy rich, some just temporarily making a nice living - to keep happy.

"I remember during the last lockout, we were pounding our fist on the table saying that we won't accept a [salary] cap under any circumstances," said one former Flyer before walking into the meetings on Wednesday. "By February, we took the cap. If we were going to cave, why didn't we just do it from the start so we could actually get paid?

"A lot of players have a lot of different views. For me, I have 1, maybe 2 years left. By voting to play hardball, I could effectively be ending my career. Then again, should we just lie down and take it from the owners? It will be interesting to see how everyone else feels."

On the surface, the NHLPA had to be proud of the rah-rah support from its assembled players in New York. For fans, it can't be a good thing. The stronger and more unified the union, the longer this unavoidable lockout will go and the more games will be missed.

With just 3 days remaining before another work stoppage, it's up to the players to offer the next olive branch, however small. Without one, Saturday's lockout might as well be called a strike, too.


Contact Frank Seravalli at seravaf@phillynews.com or on Twitter @DNFlyers. Read his blog, Frequent Flyers, at www.philly.com/frequentflyers.

 

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