TORONTO – The key to having an NHL season is a 50-50 revenue split. The owners and players both realize that an even partnership is the answer to ending the lockout and starting the games.
The problem is the sides still have wildly different views on how to get there – or, more specifically, when to get there.
The optimism generated earlier this week that an 82-game season could start Nov. 2 evaporated today inside the headquarters of the NHL Players’ Association. The union made three counterproposals to the offer crafted by the league Tuesday, and all were dismissed without hesitation.
Neither side was pleased.
“It’s clear that we’re not speaking the same language in terms of what they came back to us with,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “It is still my hope that we can accomplish my goal, the league’s goal of getting an 82-game season, but I am concerned based on the proposal that was made today that things are not progressing. On the contrary, I believe the proposal that was made by the players’ association in many ways was a step backward.”
The union was taken aback that its offers were shot down so quickly. The league’s representatives talked alone for 10 to 15 minutes before passing judgment.
“Today is not a good day,” NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr said. “It should have been, but it wasn’t.”
Speaking with about a dozen players as a backdrop, Fehr outlined the three proposals the union offered. The first two would gradually establish a 50-50 revenue split, with the magic number being reached in Year Three in the most optimistic revenue growth projections or Year Five in more conservative outlooks.
The players, who earned 57 percent of the record $3.3 billion in revenue last season, would get about 55 percent this year. They have no desire to start at 50-50 because it would mean an immediate 12.3 percent reduction in salaries. After agreeing to a 24 percent salary rollback following the 2004-05 lockout, the players feel they have given enough.
“The suggestion that somehow the players are not moving in the owners’ direction strikes me as being fundamentally misplaced,” Fehr said. “We said here’s two avenues that you can look at in which the players are prepared to get down in a reasonable amount of time to percentages which look like yours, not all at once and not with big salary concessions, not given what happened the last time and not given the growth that we’ve had.”
The owners expect 50-50 immediately.
“None of the three variations of player share that they gave us even began to approach 50-50, either at all or for some long period of time,” Bettman said. “The proposal that we made, so we can be clear about it, at 50-50 and all the other things, was the best that we could do. We gave it our best shot. It is our best offer. We gave the players’ association what we had to give.”
The union estimates the salary rollback following the last negotiation cost players $3.3 billion during the seven years of the collective bargaining agreement. Fehr said Thursday’s first two proposals would save the owners another $796 million to $1.117 billion in the next CBA compared to the last one. Despite the givebacks, the players' annual take would grow by 5 percent to 7.2 percent, as would league revenues.
“We came in here today with those proposals thinking that we could really make some progress,” Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "To hear those words [from Bettman] kind of shuts it down pretty quickly. In a nutshell, it doesn't look good.”
The third proposal, put together before the NHL contingent arrived at the union’s offices, lacked concrete numbers. In essence, Fehr said, it called for owners to honor existing contracts by paying out the 12.3 percent reduction in salaries and using the remaining 87 percent or so as part of a 50-50 split.
“It is not a 50-50 deal," NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said in a statement. "It is most likely a 56- to 57-percent deal in Year One and never gets to 50 percent during the proposed five-year term of the agreement.”
Anything less than 50-50, it appears, is not going to work for the NHL. It means there is a lot of negotiating ahead.
“I am, to say the least, thoroughly disappointed,” Bettman said.
The league has established next Thursday as the date by which the CBA needs to be completed in order to save an 82-game season. Fehr said the players would also like a full schedule, but they are not willing to sign a bad deal in order to achieve it.
“I don’t know what we will eventually do,” Fehr said. “I don’t know what the owners will eventually do. But if you had been in the room, the vibe you would have gotten is unless you’re prepared to sign with very minor variations, don’t bother.”