Labor log: Maybe don’t buy the hype about Bettman or Fehr.


NEW YORK — Does anything anyone presumed really matter when it comes to assessing the current NHL labor talks?

That is the question I have as of late Tuesday afternoon, after a day that included two meetings between the NHL and NHLPA, with a near four-hour break in between, and, depending on whose side a hockey fan is on, either a new (NHLPA side) or counter (NHL side) proposal from the league.

Indeed, the story I’m set to write for Wednesday’s print edition of the Tribune-Review is no easy one. This dispute between hockey owners and players is more nuanced than I can explain cleanly, even though the sticking point seemingly remains a divide of hockey-related revenue.

 Under the current CBA, which expires 11:59 p.m. Sept. 15, players receive 57 percent of hockey related revenue. The original NHL proposal for a new CBA flipped that percentage to the owners. The players responded with a proposal at 54 percent.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said after the second round of meetings today, both held at the league’s offices in Manhattan, that owners have presented a “counterproposal” to the union’s proposal.

Of course, folks within the NHLPA were quick to urge caution in labeling the NHL’s latest offer as a “counterproposal.”

Also, of course, the NHL is not providing specifics, and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr declined to characterize the developments today until he has had more time to assess the latest from the NHL.

So, uh, yeah.

The hockey world is less than three weeks from a second NHL lockout of players since 2004, and from what I can tell both sides are still stuck on words. Forget the actual numbers of a revenue split.

Now, back to my starting point – the one about presumptions, which I suspect become more dangerous with each passing day of negotiations that will continue Wednesday.

The NHLPA is winning the grasp for the fans, the so-called public relations battle, but, really, the NHL isn’t even trying to engage on that front.

The perception, at least the one I’ve picked up on from readers, is that Bettman is the bad guy here because he represents greedy owners and he is looking to crush a union that the NHL already pummeled with the CBA that arose from the 2004-05 cancelled season.

(I’m racking my brain for an example of a company that hands its employees 57 percent of revenue and somehow stands to be labeled as greedy for perhaps wanting an even split, but never mind that point.)

Right now, right here, I would like to address this perception that Bettman is unwilling to compromise.

This idea, which I’ve heard floated from some pro player parties, that the NHL is unwilling to truly negotiate because it is not willing to concede on the key economic issue – well that idea doesn’t fly if the NHL did work off the proposal previously put out by the NHLPA.

If Bettman is telling the truth and the NHL did proposal a “significant” counter to the NHLPA’s last proposal, that would mean the NHL likely moved from its push for 57 percent of the hockey-related revenue and closer to the union’s request for owners to take in only 46 percent.

If that is true it would mark an actual concession on Bettman’s part, right? Concessions aren’t exactly what he is known for when it comes to negotiating.

Even if the NHL’s offer was for a 50-50 split or revenue that would mark a concession on Bettman’s behalf considering his first proposal was for 57 percent.

A hard-line approach he is taking, clearly.

In the interest of fairness, there is also an unfair perception regarding Fehr, one that has some readers worried he is intent on conducting this negotiation as he has past ones when he ran the MLB players union, and when he routinely played smack-a-mole with the easily divided owners in that sport.

Nothing I’ve seen from Fehr so far suggests he is that guy any more than Bettman is an unwilling, hardliner.

Fehr said today the NHLPA “intends to respond” to the NHL’s proposal.

He also made clear that he is working for the players, not his own personal gain – and perhaps I’m the sucker, but I believed his body language while delivering this quote:

“Essentially you need to understand that I’m staff. Everyone that works for the Players’ Association is staff, even former players. Employers make decisions and one of the reasons you bring them back is because there may be times in these discussions even if you’re meeting in a smaller group that you want to step out and consult. If they were not here, what we would do is either walk back or get on the phone. Obviously it’s important in the end, as far as an NHL player is concerned, this is his contract and this is his future, and he has both the obligation and the responsibility to make the ultimate decision on it. Not alone, but he has to make it with the other players as a group, so it’s crucially important that the players be involved at all stages.”

More players, though perhaps not as many as 20, will be here tomorrow for the NHLPA’s anticipated response to the NHL’s latest proposal.

I am not optimistic the hockey world is anywhere closer to a deal, especially by the Sept. 15 deadline.

That said, based off one day – and indeed basing anything off one day can be dangerous, so I look forward to Day 2 – I am willing to offer this analysis:

The narratives on Bettman and Fehr, based largely from presumptions that are based largely from their perceived respective pasts, aren’t as clearly structured as most people would prefer to believe.

In the case of this specific labor negotiation, I’m not sure that is such a bad thing when it comes to the solution everybody presumably wants, which is for training camps to open on time in late-September.

At least I think that is what everybody wants.

The fact that less than three weeks remain until the CBA expires and both sides are still stuck on words leaves me a little less sure about that.

All of this has me thinking Wednesday should prove telling – should, not could, and certainly not will.