Smithson: Collective bargaining process for new contract like skating uphill

The offers put forward by the league and the players appear as different as apples and oranges.

We are roughly three weeks away from the date on which the National Hockey League owners have  said there must be a new collective agreement with the players’ association.

Last week, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said  the league and players remain “far apart” on key financial elements.

The initial offers from the two sides seem to have only widened the divide between them.

Bettman has indicated that the players will be locked out if a new deal is not in place by Sept. 15.

In July, the league made the first move, with an offer including a reduction of players’ share of hockey-related revenues from 57 per cent to 46 per cent.  Reports indicated the league is also seeking new restrictions on free agency, salary arbitration, the length of entry-level contracts, and on signing bonuses and the structuring of long-term contracts.

A few weeks later, the players responded with their proposal, including acceptance of a smaller percentage of revenues for players and an expanded revenue sharing program to help struggling teams.

Donald Fehr, the executive director of the NHL Players’ Association, characterized the players’ offer as one which could “stabilize the industry.”

It does seem to be the more substantial of the two offers, containing a new vision for financial stability for both the “have” and “have not” teams.

After an initial review, Bettman said, “It’s clear to me that they didn’t put it together in an hour or two, and as a result we’re going to need to take a little bit of time to evaluate it, understand it.”

I don’t know if he intended that as a backhanded slap in the face for Fehr and the players but, to me, it came across that way. In any event, the offers put forward by the league and the players appear as different as apples and oranges.

For the most part, the two sides don’t even seem to be negotiating on the same topics, which could pose a bit of an obstacle to getting a deal done.

Fehr has indicated that the players are not interested in a strike or lockout.  “Nobody on the players’ side is talking about stopping the season,” he said.

Pat Hickey wrote a useful column on this topic in the Vancouver Sun a few days ago.  He started off by saying, “Find the number.  That’s the key to settling the current impasse between the National Hockey League and its players.

The key players in this dispute have been around long enough to know there is a number that will satisfy both parties. The nature of compromise is that neither side will be happy with the number, but they will be satisfied.”

That, of course, is entirely true.  There is a number, or perhaps a set of terms, which will ultimately be acceptable to both parties.

There is precisely zero chance that these two parties will never again reach a deal that will permit professional hockey to be played on this continent.

Both sides know that, the sports media knows that, and the rest of us know that.

The unknowns are how long it is going to take and what the final terms are going to be.

Hickey also mentioned the item which may ultimately be the biggest sticking point—the drastic cuts in players’ shares of revenue being demanded by the league.

He wrote: “After seven years of boasting about annual increases in revenue, the league is crying poor. But the economic state of the NHL resembles a Third World country, with rich teams at the top and a collection of struggling have-nots at the bottom. While the league’s initial proposal to the players asked for a five-year limit on contracts and equal payments in each season, the rich teams continue to sign players to front-loaded, long-term deals.”

It doesn’t really seem that the league cares all that much about the contrary message such long-term, front-loaded deals send out.

They seem to think they have the leverage—that the players need the league more than the league needs the players—and the always smug Bettman appears content to let things wind down to the Sept. 15 deadline. We all know how these things go. It will appear that the parties are miles apart right up until the moment when they announce they’ve reached a deal.

That neither side seems to be on the same page just yet isn’t reason for panic. Bettman said he and deputy commissioner Bill Daly will sit down with Fehr and his brother Steve Fehr, the union’s number two man, in a small group session this week. My guess  is they’ll get a deal done by Sept. 15, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

When a deal is finally made, then we can all return to speculating about where Vancouver Canucks netminder Roberto Luongo  will be playing this season.

Kelowna Capital News