Frank Seravalli: Talks Thursday could make or break NHL season

Just in time for latest round of talks, commissioner Gary Bettman (center) has posted CBA details for all to see.
Just in time for latest round of talks, commissioner Gary Bettman (center) has posted CBA details for all to see. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: October 19, 2012

IMAGINE, FOR a second that the NHL's season is a $3.3 billion pound anvil teetering on the edge of a cliff, having been pushed halfway out there by commissioner Gary Bettman.

On Thursday, NHL Players' Association executive director Donald Fehr has a magnificent chance to pull the season back from the brink, and finally begin negotiating toward a resolution of this disgusting labor dispute.

After the NHL swallowed its pride Tuesday and put on the table what looks like a last-ditch effort to play an 82-game season, Fehr was left with two choices when the two sides sit down for another bargaining session Thursday in Toronto:

1. Use the league's honest-to-goodness proposal as a starting point.

2. Try to pick holes in it.

The latter likely would push this season off the cliff. It is my belief that if Fehr responds in a cold way, the owners are prepared to settle into a deep freeze, ready to cancel "signature NHL events" as they promised, in addition to another significant chunk of games.

Fehr has spent the previous 48 hours reviewing the league's proposal, which Bettman says includes a 50-50 split of hockey-related revenue.

At this point, it's anyone's guess as to how Fehr will respond. But it will be easy to take the temperature of this situation by his post-negotiation news conference on Thursday, when the NHLPA is expected to counteroffer.

Clearly, the sharp-negotiating Fehr will not come out and praise the NHL's offer. It's simply a matter of how much he is willing to shoot it down.

Bettman says the window to complete a new collective bargaining agreement in time to play a full 82-game season will close Oct. 26. That would allow a week's worth of training camp and the regular season to open on Nov. 2 with the already-scheduled games. Any games canceled from Oct. 11 to Nov. 1 would be made up during the season.

On Wednesday, the NHL turned up the heat on the NHLPA by releasing a full transcript of both its offer and the commentary that Bettman and deputy Bill Daly presented to the players on Tuesday.

Bettman called the offer "the best we can possibly do."

Bettman said Tuesday that he doesn't like to negotiate publicly. Less than a day later, his plans were on the Internet for all to see. That accomplished two things: pushing some of the public pressure onto the players to accept a 50-50 split, and letting every player view the proposal officially from the league's perspective and not from what Fehr is telling them.

It was a significant change in strategy for the NHL - and it was slightly antagonistic.

One player, San Jose's Logan Couture, took to Twitter on Wednesday to scoff at the NHL for publicizing the offer.

For the Flyers, the NHL's now-public proposal shed light on their plight for the future. The league, as this column noted in August, fully intends to punish "cheat contracts," which circumvented the spirit of the salary cap by signing players to major long-term deals to artificially reduce the cap hit.

The Flyers' gifts to Chris Pronger (7 years, $34.45 million), Jeff Carter (11 years, $58 million), Mike Richards (12 years, $69 million) and Ilya Bryzgalov (9 years, $51 million) come to mind. That doesn't even include the more recent deals for James van Riemsdyk and Scott Hartnell.

The league wants to cap contracts at 5 years. Any player signed to a longer deal under the former CBA will be the responsibility of the signing team should he retire or stop playing. And, contract abominations (see: Randy Jones, Matt Walker and even Michael Leighton) stashed in the minors will still count against the cap.

Under the new proposal, the NHL will move the 2012-13 salary cap from $70.2 million to $59.9 million but allow a 1-year exception for teams to go above $59.9 million. Player salaries for signed deals also won't be reduced this season, but they will be in future years if revenue growth projections are not met, which could mean some players are paid over a span of future years.

In an email to players and agents, Fehr expressed his displeasure with the league's offer.

"Simply put, the owners' new proposal, while not quite as Draconian as their previous proposals, still represents enormous reductions in player salaries and individual contracting rights," Fehr wrote in a memo leaked to TSN. "On last year's revenue numbers, this would mean that players' salaries would be cut by about $231 million. We do not yet know whether this proposal is a serious attempt to negotiate an agreement, or just another step down the road. The next several days will be, in large part, an effort to discover the answer to that question. The overall agreement has to be fair and equitable for both parties. Bargaining is both give and take."

As much as Fehr probably would like to tell the owners to kiss off, I'm not so sure his members have any interest in that. Players have said they want to play. If that's true, Fehr will respond in the appropriate way.

And so, come Thursday, the season truly hangs in the balance.


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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