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NHL CBA Negotiations: The Road Ahead.

The dust has settled from the NHLPA’s decision to reject – or rather, non-decision to accept – the NHL’s new divisional realignment plan, with most of the mainstream media and blogosphere punditry considering it the opening act in the next round of CBA negotiations.

Opinion appears divided over whether it was a good move by the PA to show the league it won’t be pushed around by the league, or a dangerous one which can only result in another work stoppage.

Regardless, it’s probably a good idea to prepare ourselves for the public posturing to come from both sides.

First, it’s important to remember the labor landscape is very different now compared to 2004, when the atmosphere between the two sides was poisoned by acrimony as they dug in for a very nasty standoff.

Back then, it was about “cost certainty”, aka salary cap, as well as the owners desire to crush then-PA director Bob Goodenow (who they passionately hated) and his militant right-hand men within the Association.

Today, the salary cap is firmly in place, and the PA has no desire to fight for its removal. Commissioner Bettman and the team owners, meanwhile, face a much different opponent in new PA director and former long-time MLB player union head Donald Fehr, resulting in a lack of mudslinging we previously saw when Goodenow ruled the PA roost.

Fehr has adopted a low-key approach to the upcoming labor talks, and while the league negotiators have undoubtedly referred with those in Major League Baseball who’ve dealt with Fehr to get a handle on the man and his negotiating style, they’re still going up against something of an unknown here.

That explains their “test the defenses” approach with their “take it or leave it” attitude toward the PA’s concerns over the divisional realignment plan.

It’s also apparent the players are no longer as militant as they were eight years ago. Many of the strident leaders and player reps of the past are gone, replaced by those who remember the harsh lessons of the last lockout, and the difficulties it placed upon their professional and personal lives, which the majority of the membership also lived through.

There’s also a significant number of younger players who joined the league in the years following the lockout, including influential superstars like Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, Jonathan Toews, Steven Stamkos and Drew Doughty. They have little or no reason to gear up for a lengthy labor battle which could potentially threaten another season.

While the players aren’t about to just roll over and accept whatever the league thrusts at them in the upcoming CBA talks, they still want to get the best deal they can while avoiding any potential work stoppage.

That doesn’t mean the next round of talks will go smoothly.  While most of the players, and likely many of the team owners, are content with the current system, there are some real issues which must be worked out.

The owners are expected to seek a reduction in the players share of revenue, currently set at 57 percent, probably down to between 45-50 percent. To achieve that, the players will likely have to accept another salary rollback, plus a lowering of the salary cap, especially the cap “floor”.

It’s also possible the league could try to implement measures to slow the increase of the cap ceiling, or at the very least of the cap minimum, to make it more affordable for struggling American-based teams.

Revenue sharing could become an issue, potentially pitting struggling team owners against the more successful, bigger market owners. If so, that could become a wedge issue the PA could exploit to their benefit.

Another potentially divisive issue for ownership could be the front-loading of contracts, a loophole which some general managers have exploited, to the consternation of others.

The PA, meanwhile, will want to either abolish the hated escrow clause, or implement a cap on the amount of money taken from their pay in escrow.

They’ll also fight to ensure guaranteed contracts, retention of arbitration rights and “no-trade/no-movement” clauses and maintaining or even lowering the current eligibility age for unrestricted free agency.

Once talks are underway, other issues are bound to come to the fore in the coming months, including participation in the Winter Olympics (the players want to continue participating, while the owners have grown cool toward it), and of course, divisional realignment.

As in 1992, 1994-95 and 2004-05, both sides will try to use the mainstream media to their own advantage, in hopes of painting the other as the bad guy in the eyes of fans and media.

Hockey blogging was still in its infancy during the Great NHL Lockout War of 2004-05, so neither side bothered courting bloggers. Expect that to change this time around, as both will reach out to popular, influential bloggers in hopes of garnering more fan support to their respective side.

It remains to be seen if the NHL will ramp up its propaganda machine to attack and demonize the players as it did successfully in the last lockout, and what, if any, counter the NHLPA will have this time around.

The PA got its collective ass kicked in the court of public opinion last time around, and likely will again despite their best efforts to improve their image.

Most hockey fans aren’t well-informed about NHL labor issues; not because they’re stupid, but rather they just don’t care. All they want is their regular season and playoffs to start and end on time, and to watch their favorite teams and players throughout that time.

When that doesn’t happen, it’s easy for the league to manipulate the fury of the majority of fans toward the players, painting them as greedy, selfish, spoiled and arrogant, being led astray by labor leaders more interested in their own self-interests than “the good of the game”.

Of course, it’s never as simple as that, and usually it’s the league which is responsible for the labor wars and work stoppages, but in the PR war between billionaire owners and millionaire players, the latter will always lose, especially in the midst of a lengthy recession.

Fehr undoubtedly understands this from his years as the MLB players union. He won’t keep the PA membership in the dark as Goodenow did, so expect Fehr or his lieutenants to keep the players constantly informed on all aspects of negotiations, hoping to avoid blindsiding them and provoking the kind of divisive comments and attitudes which doomed their resolve and unity last time around.

As negotiations likely drag on into the summer, he’ll also tell his membership to continue with their off-season preparations for training camp.

The players will be instructed not to waste time bad-mouthing the league and the team owners through the mainstream and social media, and instead to talk only about their preparation for the upcoming season, while expressing confidence of a deal being implemented before September 15th, when the current CBA expires.

It’s not much of a defense, but should avoid providing the league and its media sycophants opportunities to exploit off-the-cuff comments from players to their own advantage.

We shouldn`t assume there will be another work stoppage, but it`s probably a good idea to be mentally prepared for the possibility. If it does happen, it`s safe to assume it won`t be season-killing like the last one.

The NFL and NBA went through labor negotiations last year which many observers expected could result in season-threatening work stoppages. The NFL resolved theirs without a dent into their 2011 season, while the NBA got it done at the cost of the opening month and a half of their season.

The lack of acrimony between the NHL and NHLPA this time around bodes well for a less contentious round of collective bargaining, ultimately resulting in an agreement which either ensures no threat to the start of next season, or at worst pushes the start back only a few weeks.

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Comments

SYF's avatar

Today, the salary cap is firmly in place, and the PA has no desire to fight for its removal.

I’m speculating that players will want to keep their 57% share in revenue while accepting a lower cap hit and maintaining the right to raise the annual cap like they currently do.

Posted by SYF from Alana Blanchard's Bikinis and Surfboards on 01/11/12 at 04:04 PM ET

Avatar

I sincerely hope the players realize how good they have it.

One only has to look at team payrolls to see that the players are making more $ than ever.

The AVERAGE team payroll was 44M with the low end being Atlanta, Florida, Minnesota, and Nashville all below 30M in payroll.

Meanwhile the top end Detroit and the Rangers had payrolls above 70M. 

That is NOT a healthy balance.  But most teams were between 35 and 45M.  Today most teams are above 50M, and that has grown too quickly.  The cap floor today is more than the total cap was just 5 years ago.  And salary growth of above around 10% per year since.

I would like to see:  A buyout clause that is decreased to a 33% cap hit of the contract divided over the life of the contract.  Don’t decrease salaries to 50% of revenue.  Decrease them 1% per year for 5 years (or 1% every other year for 10).  That is fair for both sides. 

It’s not like the players have any other choice either.  The KHL is NOT doing well, and like communism, they are destined to collapse.  They are being floated by the Russian Government and Eastern European billionaires HOPING it will take off.  Meanwhile the playing conditions are DISGUSTING.

Posted by BobaFett from Las Vegas on 01/11/12 at 07:15 PM ET

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About Puckin' Around With Spector

I’m Lyle Richardson. You might know me from my website, Spector’s Hockey, my thrice-weekly rumor column at THN.com, my weekly column at Eishockey News (if you read German), and my former gig as a contributing writer to Foxsports.com.

I’ll be writing a once-weekly blog here with my take on all things NHL. Who knows, I might actually find time to debunk a trade rumor or two.