Trust missing in NHL labor negotiations

On Thursday evening at the Westin New York Hotel in Times Square, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr spoke about the lockout situation.
On Thursday evening at the Westin New York Hotel in Times Square, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr spoke about the lockout situation.REUTERS/File

Hockey is a game of trust. A shooter has faith that when he has a scoring chance, his disher will slide him the puck. A skilled player who takes an unnecessary lick knows that on the following shift, his toughest teammate will address the situation. One of the common motivational signs in the runways between the dressing rooms and ice reads, "Play for the man in front of you."

The game's supposed stewards at the NHL and the NHL Players Association have given no indications that anybody within their ranks should be granted that level of trust.

On Thursday evening at the Westin New York Hotel in Times Square, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr spoke about the lockout situation.


"We are clearly very close, if not on top of one another, in connection with most of the major issues," he said.

During Fehr's update, special counsel Steve Fehr received a voicemail from NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly informing him that the league had rejected the union's latest proposal.

Later that evening, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman brought the hammer down on Fehr's optimistic outlook.

"I don't know why he did that," Bettman said of Fehr's characterization of an imminent agreement. "Especially when he knew the parameters we had laid out last night and what had evolved over the week. I find it almost incomprehensible that he did that."

That sound like two would-be deal-makers ready to shake hands?

And so it has come to this: one month, at the very most, for the sides to cool off, reconvene at the bargaining table, and close the deal before 2012-13 goes into the ground.

This is a dirty situation, highlighted by how someone — most assuredly a very powerful person — used WBZ's Steve Burton like a Kleenex last week. Burton was the sole voice reporting, before the three days of meetings in New York, that based on behind-the-scenes progress, an agreement was imminent. On cue, talks on Tuesday were positive.


Now, after believing someone unworthy of his trust, Burton is left holding the bag.

There has been significant movement from the fringes. Gone is the NHL's initial 43 percent offer of hockey-related revenue. The players have committed to at least an eight-year CBA.

But for a handshake to take place in the middle, all parties must regain trust. As of now, that's easier said than done.

The shift in momentum — positive energy one night, blood pressure spikes the next — took place between Tuesday and Wednesday. The four moderate owners (Larry Tanenbaum, Ron Burkle, Jeff Vinik, and Mark Chipman) met with 18 players at the Westin in a marathon session Tuesday that concluded shortly before midnight.

Forbes recently designated Tanenbaum's Maple Leafs as the NHL's most valuable franchise. The Air Canada Centre sells out. CBC fights for the rights to air Toronto game's on "Hockey Night in Canada." Despite the team's on-ice shortcomings, it is the NHL's money-making titan.

On Wednesday morning, Tanenbaum reported the positive mood to the Board of Governors. By that afternoon, the players' response angered Tanenbaum so much that by the next day, he was on a plane.

The result: Tanenbaum, like the other three moderates, shifted toward the hard-line stance of Jeremy Jacobs and Murray Edwards. They believed they were the players' allies. Now, with little trust in the NHLPA, the moderates are now hawks.


"When we reconvened with the players on Wednesday afternoon, it was like someone had thrown a switch," Tanenbaum said in a statement. "The atmosphere had completely changed.

"Nevertheless, the owners tried to push forward and made a number of concessions and proposals, which were not well-received. I question whether the union is interested in making an agreement. I am very disappointed and disillusioned. Had I not experienced this process myself, I might not have believed it."

Throughout the negotiation process, Donald Fehr has rolled out a string of techniques: delay, deflection, elusion. They have all worked. On Thursday, Bettman acknowledged that the NHL has repeatedly negotiated against itself.

The NHL's make-whole payment, meant to offset the dip in player share of HRR from 57 to 50 percent, ballooned to $300 million. The league has relented to the NHLPA's insistence of four years of service time for a player to qualify for arbitration, the device that has aided salary escalation for restricted free agents.

But the NHL insists it is holding firm on three principles.

First, it wants a 10-year CBA, with an opt-out clause after eight years. The NHL wants long-term labor peace and a commitment to its business partners that the lockout culture is over.

Second, player contracts must be capped at five years (seven for a team to re-sign its own unrestricted free agents), with season-to-season variance limited to 5 percent. This provision prevents general managers from issuing long-term deals (big money up front, back-diving value at the end, to lower annual average value). This issue, said Daly, is "the hill we will die on."


Third, there will be no compliance buyouts or escrow limits in the transition to the new CBA.

On Thursday, when Daly and legal counsel Bob Batterman met with the NHLPA, the league wanted a yes-or-no answer. When the NHLPA said no, the fireball exploded to create the current situation: talks broken off, the make-whole provision off the table, and anything less than a 48-game schedule not worth a hasty agreement.

"Am I unhappy about the prospect? You bet I am," Bettman said of the possibility of a lost season. "It absolutely is something that torments me. By the same token, I have a long-term responsibility to this game and the fans of this game that we have a healthy product."

There remains time for a deal. Both sides made progress in New York. With each month, Fehr has squeezed more concessions from the owners.

But that has come at a stark cost: missed paychecks. As common sense dictates, owners can outlast the players. By the time Tyler Seguin, for example, recoups the money he has lost by Year 8 of the next CBA, most of his current teammates will be retired. The income they've lost will not be reclaimed. The NHL may be bluffing. The make-whole payment may be reintroduced. But it's too late in the game to play chicken.

"We are where we are," Bettman said. "As horrible as it is."



Losses aren’t make-believe

The lifeblood of fantasy hockey is the data — goals, assists, points, saves, etc. — that NHL players provide. So with no NHL games being played, fantasy hockey has become irrelevant.

"It was growing at a really good clip," said Darryl Dobbs, founder of Dobber Hockey. "The lockout stopped that completely. There's no growth. The momentum is completely gone."

Dobbs's products include a fantasy guide, a midseason report, a prospects guide, and a goalie guide. These publications account for approximately 90 percent of Dobbs's income. Advertising on his website, which hosts a pool manager, accounts for the other 10 percent.

If the 2012-13 season is scrubbed, Dobbs estimates business will be down 50 percent. If a prompt resolution takes place, Dobbs pegs a 20 percent loss as a best-case scenario.

"With the keeper leaguers, most of them will be back if the season is saved," Dobbs said. "If it's gone, we're going to be losing 30 percent of them. What we are losing, even with a late start, is the casual fan, the casual poolie. I would hope they'd come back next season.

"If it starts in late December, they're not going to start up an office pool and get a draft together, especially when the league is probably going to scrape something together quickly between a deal and the season starting. That's not a big enough window to really get the hype machine going. That business is gone."

Dobbs estimated there are approximately 5 million-6 million fantasy hockey players. Like the growth in fantasy football, the interest in fantasy hockey climbed as more fans gained Internet access. Fans had access to all the information they required: a player's previous production, injury history, quality of teammates.

To support the instant access to information, professionals such as Dobbs provide in-depth research to highlight preferred players. When Dobbs was a college student, he developed a formula to project a player's points-per-game rate.

Now, the only hockey Dobbs can follow is in the AHL and Europe. He is tracking players with especially strong or weak performances. Detroit prospect Damian Brunner, for example, had 22 goals and 25 points through 26 games for Zug in Switzerland. Dobbs now projects Brunner to make the Red Wings roster when play resumes.

Conversely, St. Louis prospect Jaden Schwartz had only 6 goals and 4 assists in 20 games for Peoria, the Blues' AHL affiliate.

It's uncertain whether any of that research will be put to good use.

"I'm the NHL's best friend," said Dobbs. "The growth of the game is in my best interest. Anything to get it on its feet."


Positioning, not checking

One leftover from last Sunday's look at the Canadian Women's Hockey League: the absence of checking. CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress used the net-front battles as an example of how women must be subtler than their male counterparts in defending attackers. "Imagine the strategic knowledge the players have to have," Andress said. "You can't check a person out in front of the net. They have to strategically know how to position themselves, then position the play to take that possible play out of reach. It's not just a hitting game. It's a strategic game."

Voice of the people

Unless the NHLPA's leadership can finalize an agreement, the rank-and-file will not vote on any proposal. It sure would be interesting, however, to see the results of an anonymous player vote taken right now on the NHL's last offer. It's a rule that players never criticize their own outside of the dressing room. They are loyal to a fault. But if given the chance to vote individually and anonymously, without fear of disclosure or repercussions, the guess is that a healthy number of players would take a deal. Maybe even the majority. The same could be said of the owners. Hard to see the leaders of either side allow such a possibility.

Senators vs. Sweden

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly has had enough to handle amid CBA negotiations. But according to the Ottawa Sun, he also had to field a request from the Swedish federation regarding the Senators' decision not to release Mika Zibanejad for the upcoming World Junior Championship. Zibanejad, the sixth overall pick of the 2011 draft, has been playing for Binghamton, Ottawa's AHL club. And struggling. Through 16 games, the 19-year-old Zibanejad had only one goal and six assists. Ottawa wants Zibanejad to continue acclimating to pro hockey against men, not dressing against teenagers in the world juniors. When the Swedish federation asked Daly to intervene, the deputy commissioner declined to become involved.

Loose pucks

As colleague Kevin Dupont noted of the owners/players meetings, 13 of the 20 NHLers who participated attended American colleges: Craig Adams (Harvard), David Backes (Minnesota State-Mankato), Mike Cammalleri (Michigan), Ron Hainsey (UMass-Lowell), Shawn Horcoff (Michigan State), Jamal Mayers (Western Michigan), Andy McDonald (Colgate), Ryan Miller (Michigan State), George Parros (Princeton), Martin St. Louis (Vermont), Jonathan Toews (North Dakota), Kevin Westgarth (Princeton), and Daniel Winnik (New Hampshire). Doubt that any of the 13, when they were on campus, believed they'd be participating in collective bargaining sessions. That hardly qualifies as a 101-level class . . . On Thursday, Shawn Thornton will sign autographs from 5-7 p.m. at the Kowloon restaurant in Saugus. Cost is $20 per autograph. Sportsworld in Saugus is producing the event. Try the house Lockout Lo Mein . . . The winner of the New York meetings was the podium that NHL staffers packed up, then reassembled, Wednesday night in a Westin boardroom. Weary scribblers chronicling the events groused that the podium (@NHLPodium) was trumping them in Twitter popularity, which reveals far too much about our sad state of affairs . . . In Hollywood, Times Square is often the target of fictional disasters, ranging from meteors to monsters. Michael Bay could be making a mint had he placed a camera inside Wednesday's negotiations . . . All reports indicate that Thornton stole the show Wednesday with the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall, where the tough guy narrated "The Night Before Christmas." Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good fight.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.