Frank Seravalli: No sign of thaw in NHL's labor dispute

Posted: October 19, 2012

BUNDLE UP. It's going to be a long winter.

On a day greeted with optimism that a full, 82-game schedule could be played, the NHL and NHL Players' Association met in Toronto on Thursday for the players to offer a counter to the league's surprising concessions from earlier in the week.

The meeting between the sides did not even last an hour.

"In a nutshell, it doesn't look good right now," Sidney Crosby, the face of the NHLPA, told reporters in Toronto. "That doesn't seem like a group willing to negotiate."

Two days after making what promised to be his best offer, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said he was "disappointed" in the NHLPA's three different offers made on Thursday.

"It's clear that we're not speaking the same language," Bettman told reporters. "The players' association came back and made three alternate proposals on the players' share - all variations, to some degree, of the one proposal they made over the summer and really haven't deviated from since. None of the three variations of the players' share that they gave us even began to approach 50-50 [revenue split]."

In some ways, the NHLPA's response on Thursday to a meaningful concession by the NHL is shocking. All summer, we have heard the rhetoric from players that they "just want to play." This week's offer from the NHL was their chance; it wasn't perfect, by any means, but it was an opportunity to at least get to common ground.

In some ways, the NHLPA's response on Thursday was not.

As NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr said: "The NHL hasn't articulated a reason for wanting a revenue concession."

As much as I can respect Fehr and the players' position - since the NHL has posted seven consecutive seasons of record revenues since the last lockout and can no longer cry poor - it is misguided. The owners haven't exactly hidden the fact that this is a complete money grab. They've just been ham-handed in their approach to the money grab - initially by offering a ridiculous, absurd cut to 43 percent in July as a starting point.

For the last 7 years, the NHL has paid 57 percent of its revenue to players. The NFL and NBA reduced their players to 50 percent and 49.5 percent, respectively. The NHL wants to reduce its revenue share to players simply because it can.

It doesn't make it right. But it is reality.

For the players, the biggest crux is not a reduction in revenue share, but doing so in a way that allows all current signed contracts to be honored and paid in full.

The NHL's offer on Tuesday wanted to continue having players contribute to an escrow fund, which is a religious topic for players, and by making contracts "whole" via players getting repaid in future years.

That clearly doesn't sit well with players.

"Usually it's, 'Give me your money or I'm going to hurt you,' " Coyotes forward Shane Doan told reporters. "Not 'Give me your money and I'm going to hurt you.' "

I can get behind the players' wanting every dollar of signed deals to be honored. Otherwise, owners who signed players to mega-deals this summer would not have been bargaining in good faith, knowing that they would be asking for a reduction in revenue sharing.

Still, escrow has been a big part of the system for the last 7 years. It seems like a necessary evil to ensure a proper split if revenue falls short of projections. Three times, including last season, the players did not receive their entire escrow back.

Last season, players socked away 8.5 percent of their salary in escrow. This month, they are expected to get back 8 percent. That's pretty close. But it's also tough to say, especially in the years in which they paid more than that, that their contracts were honored to every last dollar with escrow. This doesn't seem to be so different.

Trust me, I'm all for players' making the most they can. They risk their lives in pursuit of glory and entertainment for fans. For the average player, the career is fleeting, the work isn't easy, and the memories and camaraderie far outweigh any money made over the course of a career.

I just don't understand why the players think they have any leverage in this case. The owners will win. They always do.

Perhaps it was an enormous public-relations ploy to sway the fans, but what we saw from Bettman on Tuesday in his latest offer was, I think, a genuine attempt to save a full season. Offering an immediate 50-50 revenue split probably even went against his better judgment.

Fehr said with his third offer on Thursday that the NHLPA offered an immediate 50-50 split, so long as owners would honor all current deals. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly was quick to shoot down that claim.

"In effect, the Union is proposing to change the accounting rules to able to say '50-50' when in effect, it is not," Daly said in a statement. "The Union told us they had not yet run the numbers. We did."

Around and around the rhetoric wheel goes. All you need to know is that these two sides are as far apart now as they were in July, August and September. A season is nowhere in sight, let alone an 82-game season - and Bettman said the date to cancel the Winter Classic is "rapidly approaching."

Prepare for the deep freeze. It's coming.

"Today is not a good day," Fehr said. "It should have been, but it wasn't."


Contact Frank Seravalli at seravaf@phillynews.com.

Follow him on Twitter @DNFlyers. For more Flyers coverage and opinion, read his blog at www.philly.com/FrequentFlyers.

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