Reason for hope in NHL talks

Posted: November 23, 2012

NEW YORK - Walking away from the NHL's latest round of bargaining sessions on Wednesday, it would be easy to remain pessimistic about this 69-day labor standoff between the league and its players association by simply listening to the leaders.

"We're still far apart," commissioner Gary Bettman said.

"The players did an awful lot here," NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr said.

Believe it or not, I'm actually more optimistic about some sort of season being played, after letting this week's meetings marinate a bit. They are not close to a deal by any means, but there are positives.

For me, the biggest positive was in the way the NHL treated the NHLPA's latest proposal.

Only a few weeks ago, player after player groveled about Bettman walking out on NHLPA proposals after only 10 minutes. He didn't do that this time.

In fact, Fehr and nine players presented the NHLPA's latest offer on Wednesday, spoke for less than an hour, and then broke for lunch. Fehr addressed the media and said that the two sides are $182 million apart. The NHL didn't run downstairs to the lobby of its building to dispute that.

Instead, Bettman later said he "appreciated" the movement on some issues by the players.

With that, two important things happened: Bettman improved his awful bedside manner, which has served as more of a rallying cry for the players than anything Fehr has done or said, by not immediately rejecting the deal - and the NHLPA's offer actually gave the league something to think about during the lunch break.

Even if the NHL thought the proposal was a joke, at least it was willing to handle it diplomatically in public.

Bettman also acknowledged that the NHLPA put a full, soup-to-nuts proposal on the table outlining all of its wishes for the first time since bargaining began in July. Up until this point, the NHLPA had tried to negotiate everything in piecemeal. That's a start.

Most important, the war of calculators seems to be over. The NHL did not once dispute the NHLPA's $182 million number. And the union also moved away from guaranteeing its share with a specific dollar number and instead asked for a percent of revenue. It's just that the percents during this 5-year offer are unrealistic at this point.

The NHL has offered a straight 50-50 split of revenue between players and owners, with $211 million given to the players in order to make their current contracts "whole." The players are seeking $393 million. According to the Toronto-based Globe and Mail, which ran some interesting numbers in charts, the NHLPA's offer doesn't get down to 50 percent until Year 5.

The Globe pegs the NHLPA's offer as starting the players at 56.3 percent in Year 1 - off from 57 percent that they earned last season - making their average take during the 5 years a full 52 percent. Their proposed salary cap would be $67.3 million next year; the NHL's was somewhere around $59 million.

Now, with its latest offer rejected, the NHLPA is considering decertifying its union, according to multiple reports. It's all part of this MAD - not as in angry or insane, even though this process is both of these things - but rather Mutual Assured Destruction game theory.

The NHLPA has two nuclear options: decertifying to allow players to fight this lockout through courts, and trying to fight the salary cap that the owners won in 2004-05. The NHL has the nuclear option of canceling the entire season; it already has taken down the Winter Classic.

The NHLPA knows that decertifying would likely blow up the entire season, which is a good reason why it won't do it. Continue the threats, continue the stalemate.

On a Black Friday usually reserved for an afternoon home game, the NHL is expected to cancel January's All-Star Game in Columbus and all games through Dec. 15. An additional 108 games canceled would bring the total to 435 regular-season contests.

As painful as it might be to hear, it's still somewhat early in the process. There's probably just about a month left to save the season. I take Bettman at his word when he says the NHL has made its best offer. Canceled games means less revenue, and he has made big promises to hungry owners.

Fehr said the NHLPA's "effort was about as good as we can do to try and see if an agreement can be reached." Any lawyer worth his salt knows that "about" leaves wiggle room. It would be a good place to start.

" @DNFlyers

Blog: philly.com/FrequentFlyers

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