NEW YORK—The hardest part, for Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr, may not be negotiating with each other.
Indeed, the commissioner of the NHL and the executive director of the NHL Players’ Association may well find negotiating with their own people — who have their own expectations of what a season-saving deal ought to look like — to be the biggest hurdle.
“There has to be some compromise otherwise there would have been a settlement a long time ago,” said George Smith, a former management-side labour negotiator who is now a lecturer at Queen’s University. “In order to get that settlement, you basically have to renegotiate amongst yourselves what you’re prepared to compromise on.
“There are at least three sets of negotiations going on: the ones across the table and the ones within the owners group and the players group. There have been promises made to each of their members to get us to the point where we are today. But as we approach settlement, clearly there has to be compromise.”
NHL lockout coverage
For the second day in a row, the NHL and the players union went underground to hammer out the issues with an eye on saving the hockey season. Wednesday’s session started later than expected, about 3:30 in the afternoon, as both sides used the morning to strategize internally.
With a snowstorm hitting New York, some of the players who had been in on Tuesday’s meetings — including Sidney Crosby — went home early.
Tuesday’s seven-hour session dealt largely with contract issues and revenue sharing, and was said to be the first true bargaining of these collective bargaining talks.
Wednesday’s 5 ½-hour session was dominated by more revenue-sharing talks, one of two key issues for the players. The owners had offered $200 million in revenue sharing before Wednesday; the players had wanted $250 million. But who pays into it and how it gets paid out may be more the issue.
The most contentious issue — paying players their salaries in full while at the same time getting the two sides to share hockey-related revenue 50-50 — got only a brief airing on Wednesday evening. More talks are planned for Thursday but there is a feeling among some on the league side that the pace is too slow.
Complicating matters is how to assess the damage to HRR done by the lockout, estimated to have cost about one-quarter of revenue, or about $720 million. Even if the league pays the players who are over the cap in full through some other mechanism, the league is also sure to ask the players to absorb half of the lost revenue from their share, which players may view as a “make-whole” loophole.
That’s where things get tricky, Smith says. Some owners are counting on Bettman to deliver rollbacks. Some players are counting on Fehr to get fully paid, no strings attached. The middle ground means the hawks on either side won’t be happy.
Using the make-whole provision as an example, depending on how unhappy some owners would be at having to pay players in full — or how unhappy players will be if they’re not — talks could unravel.
“The question that gets asked, sometimes in a heated way, is: ‘Wait a minute, we said we were holding on X, now you’re saying we should move on X. Then why didn’t we do this before? Or why are we giving up, we’re winning?’” said Smith.
Now take that one issue —make whole — and multiply it by the outstanding issues of revenue sharing, contract restrictions, free agency, and health and safety. So Fehr and Bettman will have to massage the expectations of their own side given the reality of the situation.
“Somehow Fehr and Bettman have to renegotiate with their own people around what might be possible because the alternative is potentially a lost season,” said Smith. “It has become a little more difficult because of the time that has passed. There’s animosity. There’s all those factors at play that make bargaining across the table only one of the sets of negotiations that are going on.
“It’s not over yet for sure, but the good news is the silence continues and they seem to be now respecting one another.”
According to various reports, cracks in the resolve of both parties are beginning to appear.ESPN.com reported that some owners are starting to get a bit antsy about getting the game back.
It’s also believed NBC is putting a fair bit of heat on Bettman. The American television network and its all-sports network have big holes on their schedule without live hockey. NBC, for example, is hoping hockey is back by Nov. 23 — Black Friday, or the day after American Thanksgiving — where there’s a dearth of live sports programming and an appetite for hockey.
Even Molson-Coors, a league sponsor, blamed lower-than-expected beer sales on the lockout. Molson Coors CEO Peter Swinburn told the Canadian Press that once the lockout ends, Molson Coors will seek financial compensation from the league over the negative impact that a lack of games has had.
“Whether it’s people not actually physically going to the venues and consuming there, consuming in venues around the outlet before that, or indeed having NHL sort of parties at home, all of those occasions have disappeared off the map and you just can’t replicate them,” Swinburn said.
“There will be some redress for us as a result of this. I can’t quantify that and I don’t know because I don’t know the scale of how long the lockout is going to last.”
The NHLPA released a statement late Wednesday night regarding the talks.
“The National Hockey League’s negotiating committee met with representatives of the National Hockey League Players’ Association for approximately 5 ½ hours,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. “We do not intend to comment on the substance or subject matter of today’s negotiations.”
Fehr also said very little after the sides wrapped up the latest round of talks.
“The NHLPA and the NHL met to discuss many of the key issues,” Fehr wrote in his statement. “We look forward to resuming talks (Thursday).”
Along with a handful of team owners, eight players attended Wednesday’s talks, five fewer than Tuesday. Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby and others left New York to try to avoid the impending snowstorm that hit the area, the union said.
Time is becoming a bigger factor every day a deal isn’t reached. The lockout, which went into effect Sept. 16 after the previous collective bargaining agreement expired, has already scrubbed 327 regular-season games — including the cancellation of New Year’s Day outdoor Winter Classic in Michigan.