December 6, 2012 - 10:03 PM
Talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association imploded in shocking fashion in New York. At precisely the moment NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr was saying how close the sides were thanks a new proposal by the players, his brother – union special counsel Steve Fehr – received a voicemail from the league saying it was pulling its entire offer off the table and no negotiations would be held for the rest of the week.
“I am disappointed beyond belief that we are where we are,” Commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters in New York. “We’re going to have to take a deep breath and try and regroup.”
The NHL has already canceled games through next Friday, and it is expected to eliminate at least the rest of December today. Since the sides are essentially back to Square One, it’s possible the league could ax even more than that.
“It looks like this is not going to be resolved in the immediate future,” Donald Fehr said in Manhattan. “It comes as a disappointment, obviously.”
The sides have been far apart throughout the process, and that was never more evident than during Fehr’s first news conference of the night.
A large union contingent, which included Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller, offered its proposal to a pair of league representatives during a one-hour meeting that began at 5 p.m. Fehr, with players standing behind him in a Manhattan hotel, explained the benefits of the proposal at about 6:45 p.m. He was beyond confident.
“We hope and believe and expect that this should put us on the road for a quick end to this dispute,” he said.
Before all the participants had even left the news conference, Steve Fehr retrieved his message. Shock and bewilderment filled the room.
“We feel like it should have been taken as a step toward ending this,” Miller, who had just left to catch a flight home to California, told The Buffalo News via text message. “How many concessions can we make?”
League members were asking themselves the same thing.
“We kept negotiating against ourselves,” Bettman said. "Anything that we put on the table this week is off the table."
The sides had resumed negotiations Tuesday with a new dynamic. Six owners met with 18 players as Bettman and Donald Fehr stayed on the sidelines. The first day of talks featured partnership and camaraderie.
“That sense of optimism, though, was something that almost inexplicably disappeared Wednesday afternoon when the four owners returned to the bargaining process,” Bettman said. “We’re at a loss to explain what happened, but things were not of the same tone as they had been on Tuesday.”
The nearly nine hours of talks Wednesday featured arguments and offers that were widely off the mark. Owners were set to walk away before being persuaded to stay by the players.
“Negotiations were spirited and passionate at times but certainly not contentious,” Miller said via text. “A lot of respect was paid to the owners for good reason.”
The league closed Wednesday’s meeting with a formal proposal. Their version of a collective bargaining agreement would be 10 years in length, feature a five-year limit on contracts (seven years if a team was re-signing its own player) and included a $100 million increase in “make-whole” dollars, which would reimburse players for money they’d lose as the sides transitioned from an economic system that had players earning 57 percent of the revenues to a 50-50 split.
“[Thursday] we were expecting an answer, a yes or a no,” Bettman said. “Our instructions from ownership was … if the answer was no, there was no point in continuing discussions.
“The answer wasn’t yes.”
Rather than accept or decline the league’s proposal, the union crafted a counteroffer that Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said “cherry-picked” bits and pieces that the players liked. The parts the union liked were only available if it accepted the 10-year term and five-year limit on contract lengths.
“Those moves were contingent on the union specifically agreeing on other things,” Bettman said. “This collective bargaining agreement is a total package.”
The union’s offer included the NHL concessions but asked for an eight-year term (with a opt-out clause after six years) and an eight-year limit on contracts.
“This is a package and everything fits together,” said Bettman, who had several players filter into his news conference and stand in the back of the room. “Spinning us all into an emotional frenzy over maybe we’re close and we’re going to be playing hockey tomorrow is terribly unfair to our fans and this process.”
Said Toronto owner Larry Tanenbaum: “I am very disappointed and disillusioned. Had I not experienced this process myself, I might not have believed it. Like all hockey fans, I am hopeful this situation can be resolved as soon as possible. I miss our game."
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John Vogl has been covering the Sabres since 2002-03, an era that has included playoff runs, last-place finishes and three ownership changes. The award-winning writer is the Buffalo chapter chairman for the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association.
About Sabres Edge
Mike Harrington, a Canisius College graduate who began his career as a News reporter in 1987, is in his sixth season covering the Buffalo Sabres. He is a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association and can vouch that exposed flesh freezes instantly when walking in downtown Winnipeg in January.
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