The monthlong NHL lockout wasn’t unlocked Tuesday, but the league may have fished the key out of its pocket, finally offering players an even split of the game’s gross revenues and softening other demands from its first offer in July.
“What we’d like to have after we are done is an excellent starting point and a deal to be made,’’ said the players’ top negotiator, Donald Fehr, reviewing the offer during a brief meeting with the media.
It took the league some three months to deliver something palatable for the players to give serious consideration. That’s promising, especially in a process that only had manufactured frustration and predictable rhetoric that comes in contentious collective bargaining talks. However, a reasonable offer does not necessarily make a deal, and the players no doubt will promptly tell ownership that a 50-50 split, while more promising, remains a significant reduction from the 57 percent of revenues the players have reaped since the institution of the salary cap after the 2004-05 lockout.
In a business that churned some $3.3 billion in gross revenue (Hockey Related Revenue) last season, up more than a billion dollars since prior to the 2004-05 lockout, the players took out approximately $1.88 billion. If revenues were the same in the coming season, their payout under the proposed 50-50 split would be $1.65 billion. Their first objection in vetting the league’s offer will be that $230 million drop, and significant changes in the CBA language that in July had the league seeking such amendments as the abolition of salary arbitration.
In Tuesday’s offer, the league backed off some of those language demands, including the length of entry-level contracts and the years of service a player needs to reach unrestricted free agency. For instance, the league initially wanted entry-level deals to last five years, a two-year increase over terms of the expired deal. Tuesday’s offer rolled that back to four years. Unrestricted free agency would now have an eight-year or age 28 threshold. It has been seven years and age 27 since 2004-05, and the league wanted to jump that to 10 years/age 30.
According to a source familiar with the league’s offer, the players were asked to accept a term maximum of five years on all contracts. Such a move would limit a team’s overall exposure and expense, but it would also be a key factor in stopping the blatant cap-dodging tactics employed by a number of clubs, especially the Red Wings and Flyers. The Bruins used just such a tactic when they signed Marc Savard to a seven-year pact, paying him slightly more than a cap-friendly $4 million per year. It was structured to pay him most of his money over the first 3-4 years and likely would have led to his early retirement. As it turned out, concussion-related issues have left Savard out of the game for most of the last two seasons and he is not expected to return.
“A new deal has to stop that cap-dodge nonsense,’’ said one team executive. “It’s nothing but a blatant dodge, and for those who do it, it’s an unintended competitive advantage in the games against clubs that have lived up to the CBA’s intentions.’’
In many ways, the new offer establishes sensible middle ground in key areas, both in money and work provisions, and should provide the setting for players to take it seriously and return in fairly short order with a prudent counter proposal. Commissioner Gary Bettman made clear it is the league’s desire to resume play by Nov. 2, just three weeks from the planned Oct. 11 start, and that a full slate of 82 games would be played, along with the requisite four rounds of best-of-seven Stanley Cup playoffs. All that could be accomplished, said Bettman, by the end of June.
“So we have about nine or 10 days to get this all put to bed, signed, sealed, and delivered in order for this offer to be effective and for us to move forward,’’ said Bettman, who has overseen two other lockouts, the second of which led to the loss of the entire 2004-05 season and playoffs.
Unlike the last time Bettman was heard from, prior to the Sept. 15 start of this lockout, he did not say publicly that a next offer would be less desirable. It’s a subtle difference, but perhaps the league is grasping the need to dial down the rhetoric and stop trying to convince players and fans alike that it has all the power in these talks. The NFL felt it had all the clout in how it treated its on-field officials during contract talks, only to watch the abominations delivered at the hands of ill-qualified replacements.
The NHLPA, led by the Fehr brothers, Donald and Steve, by Wednesday likely will inform Bettman and his lieutenant, Bill Daly, when they are ready to provide comment, or further negotiate, following the latest offer. If it is the basis of a deal, then the PA could recommend ratification to the membership, all of which could be done by next week. The league then would open camps in the Oct. 24-26 window, allowing the rank-and-file approximately a week of training camp for an official puck drop on Nov. 2.
A number of players, including nine Bruins, have joined clubs in Europe, most of them intending to remain there for the duration of the lockout. All of them have out provisions in those deals, allowing them to report back to their NHL clubs immediately when a CBA deal is reached. In theory, they would have varying degrees of advantage over the players who remained in North America during the lockout.
If play does start on or about Nov. 2 and a full schedule is played, said Bettman, it would necessitate a slight increase in game frequency. According to his estimate, it would mean an extra game squeezed in every five weeks. If players object to that piece — possibly because of exposure to injury — then they might come back with a request to play, say, 76 or 78 games. No doubt the league then would demand that their pay be trimmed by a corresponding percentage.