Labor Log: Forget an agreement, #NHL and #NHLPA lack common ground to really negotiate.


The latest NHL lockout has finally resulted in the cancellation of regular-season games – 82 over the first two weeks, including six to be played by the Penguins. This, dear readers, is no surprise to anybody who has closely reported on the negotiations – (more in a bit on why that term does not apply) – and the advice here is for hockey fans to form their own opinions on who is to blame, as both sides clearly are at fault and deserving of equal criticism.

The guess here is that, still, most of the criticism from fans and hockey pundits will be aimed at the owners, who by a unanimous vote backed this lockout plan by commissioner Gary Bettman. People are allowed to think what they want, but I do urge everybody to consider this fact regarding the NHL and NHLA.

Neither side is negotiating, at least not with each other. The league’s initial proposal, which called for a complete flip of the previous CBA revenue share (57 percent to players, 43 percent to owners), galvanized the union behind executive director Donald Fehr – and against Bettman, whom many players hold directly responsible for the 2004-05 season lost to the last NHL lockout.

Those within the hockey world can fairly forever wonder what might have been (if anything different at all) if the NHL had opened with its second proposal. Privately, several players who are keeping a mostly open mind about this labor dispute, have suggested that the second proposal would have been a better starting point for actual negotiations, and the presentation of it at first would not have alienated the union nearly to the degree that the first proposal convinced an overwhelming majority of players that Bettman is going for a kill shot in this dispute.

They believe that, most of these players.

“It kind of feels that way,” Penguins player rep Craig Adams said.

Players genuinely are convinced that the NHL is out for blood, and that league officials do not care if their hands are permanently stained. The players mostly ask: Where are the owner’s concessions? Why do they want to break us after winning last time?

The more rational of use could argue for days that last time – the seven-year CBA that came from the 2004-05 lockout – produced an agreement favorable to players, whose average salary increased. However, this post is not intended to express an opinion on who is right or who is wrong; rather, the intention is to shed some insight.

This, then, is the most insightful point to be made: Many within the union are so distrustful of Bettman that they cannot see a way to move forward, and owners/Governors know not what to make of Fehr other than an increasing suspicion that he will not accept framework for a negotiation let alone an actual deal. (The owners’ suspicion is based on a belief that Fehr has dragged out this negotiating process.)

For those fans – not to mention local vendors, business owners, etc. – that are really feeling the impact of this lockout, the players’ deep distrust of Bettman and the owners’ lack of certainty about Fehr’s intentions is the hockey equivalent of Republican and Democratic philosophies on the role of government.

Translation: Forget agreement. There is barely enough common ground to engage in a legitimate debate upon differences of opinion.

Also noteworthy is that a growing number of owners and NHL officials suspect there will eventually be a nuclear option, and that it this option was always a card to be played by the Fehr-led union. That option, as noted before, is the elimination of the strict salary cap that owners believe is an entitlement similar to guaranteed contracts.

Any move by Fehr to alter the strict cap – and, again, the NHL expects at non-cap proposal at some point – will likely result in a Doomsday Scenario for this season.

Adams, when discussing the cap, offered a rather jarring statement Wednesday:

“As far as the cap goes, everyone says that everything’s on the table,” he said, later noting (correctly) that the union offers have included a cap.

Of course, guaranteed contracts are also an entitlement to players. High ranking NHL officials have confided as much. So, when a player says, as several have over the past few days, There is no way we are playing under a CBA that takes a penny from our current contracts – well, here you have one of the big problems in a nutshell.

Terminology remains a point of debate. There is no chance for significant movement on financial issues until definitions are set.

(Yes, agreeable definitions remain elusive – perhaps the reason Adams said he is “more pessimistic” now than before about a deal being struck.)

If, as expressed by said high ranking NHL officials, a guaranteed contract is an entitlement players deserve to preserve from previous labor disputes, there is not a good argument for any CBA proposal that in any way requires players not to receive penny on the dollar for the deals signed – including the very perplexing deals that many teams inked with players in the days before the lockout was enacted Sept. 15.

The union looks upon those late pre-lockout deals as a collective farce, or at least the actions of hypocrite owners.

Owners look at players as needing to grasp better a new economic landscape, though an economic downturn is admittedly a tough sale when the league reported $3.3 billion in revenue last season.

As were the poor in the Wednesday night Presidential debate, absent from the conversation among NHL owners and union over these many weeks have been lengthy discussions – remember last week how the NFL and its officials met for 12 hours in order to get a deal – or any reasonable mention of what harm may be done if this dispute goes off the rails.

If none of this makes any sense to people who cannot understand why the NHL season is not about to begin, and may not – well, at least those people can take comfort in being among millions who also cannot figure out what in the name of Lord Stanley has led hockey at its highest level to the brink of another big, bad and busted season.

Often this blog turns to Bruce Springsteen to summarize what to make of things, and this entry will prove no exception. The Springsteen lyric that best summarizes the NHL/NHLPA labor dispute on Oct. 4, when two weeks of regular-season games were cancelled:

There’s nothing to it mister
You won’t hear a sound
When your whole world comes tumbling down
And all them fat cats, they’ll just think it’s funny
I’m goin’ on the town now, lookin’ for easy money

–“Easy Money” off the album “Wrecking Ball”

Who is the fattest of them cats is up to the dear readers to choose, but make no mistake there are enough of them on both sides to make a hockey fan sick to his or her gut.

So, go back to the Presidential debate from Wednesday. Look at the way President Barack Obama looked at Mitt Romney. Focus on his look, or look away – gestures that seemed to confirm the reported dislike Obama has for Romney.

Debating, in good faith, is tough when there is genuine dislike by one participant.

Actual negotiation is impossible, as the NHL and union are proving with each wasted day.