After four months filled with idle chatter and wasted time, the NHL and its players’ association are finally putting in a concerted effort to salvage a hockey season. It remains to be seen whether they’ll succeed.
The third straight day of serious negotiations featured two sessions of formal talks and at least one proposal exchange Wednesday. The sides’ last round of conversations began at 8:15 p.m. in the league’s New York headquarters and continued until 1 a.m.
NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr told reporters in Manhattan that the sides came closer on some issues but still have a ways to go. He also said a mediator was present for the discussions.
Commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters he expects negotiations to resume at 10 a.m. Thursday.
The talks coincided with the NHLPA’s midnight deadline to file a disclaimer of interest. Bettman told reporters the disclaimer was never discussed.
The legal move would entail union executives removing themselves as the representatives of the players, who could then file antitrust lawsuits against the NHL. Players gave the NHLPA executive committee the power to dissolve through a membership vote last month.
“All I’ve said is the players will retain their options and it’s an internal matter,” Fehr told reporters.
The decision on whether to file the disclaimer was expected to give onlookers a glimpse into the private negotiations. If union officials believed a deal was close, they likely would not walk away from the talks. If they felt the sides remained far apart, they could step aside and let the courts intervene.
If the NHLPA decided not file the disclaimer, which is apparently the case, players reportedly will need to vote again should the union eventually decide to use the bargaining tactic.
The long talks Wednesday and into Thursday morning included a continuation of the parties volleying proposals. The NHLPA delivered an offer in the afternoon, a counterproposal to the offer made by the league Tuesday night. Including last Thursday’s submission by the NHL and Monday’s counterproposal by the players’ association, the sides exchanged four formal offers in six days.
It appears there is still plenty of bargaining to do. One of the issues remaining, according to reports, is next year’s salary cap. The sides are transitioning to a 50-50 revenue split from a system that had players earning 57 percent. The NHL’s most recent public proposal would set the cap limit at $60 million, down from this season’s scheduled $70.2 million.
The union would like a higher number next season for a variety of reasons.
Numerous teams are already approaching $60 million in guaranteed deals. The Buffalo Sabres, for example, have more than $50.6 million promised to 14 players. They’d have less than $10 million to spend on another six to nine players, including restricted free agents Cody Hodgson and Jhonas Enroth.
Since many teams would already be crunching their cap dollars, it could lead to a diminished free agent market. The union would not want its members to enter the summer unable to maximize their earning potential.
The league has attempted to ease the NHLPA’s concerns by agreeing to one compliance buyout prior to the 2013-14 season. Any player bought out would not count toward the salary cap, so teams could rid themselves of a high-dollar, cap space-eating contract.
One way to raise the cap limit would be to increase the escrow withheld from players’ contracts. The players, though, made it clear to union executives from the outset that they are against large escrow numbers.
The sides apparently hit a snag in regard to pensions, according to numerous reports.
The offer made by the NHL last Thursday included the “establishment of a defined benefit pension plan that will provide maximum permissible benefits to players upon retirement.” The plan, according to the league, would be funded with contributions out of the players' share of revenues, and $50 million of the "make whole" amount of $300 million would be set aside to fund potential underfunding of the plan at end of CBA.
The players thought they had reached an agreement with the owners on pensions last month, but the recent negotiations apparently showed differing views.
Bettman told reporters the pension plan is a very complicated issue, but he understands how important it is to the players.
Bettman has said a season with at least 48 games needs to start Jan. 19 at the latest.