The Malik Report
by George Malik on 06/25/12 at 11:52 PM ET
Updated 3x at 12:27 AM: Good news, bad news. The NHLPA’s executive board’s kicked off a three-day slate of meetings in Chicago on Monday, and between the media in attendance and the number and star power of the players involved speaks to the positive influence executive director Donald Fehr’s had upon player participation…But as CBA negotiations will probably start on Wednesday or Thursday, as the Chicago Tribune’s Chris Kuc (on on Twitter and in article form), some of Fehr’s comments are a bit worrisome given that the CBA expires in two and a half months…
“There’s plenty of time to negotiate an agreement between now and Sept. 15,” NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr said. “By the way, there’s nothing magic about Sept. 15. The law is, is if you don’t have a new agreement and as long as both sides are willing to keep negotiating you continue to play under the terms of the old one until you reach an agreement.”
Fehr said negotiations will being “very quickly” after the player’s meetings wrap up in Chicago on Wednesday.
And those of you who believe that fans should “Fear Fehr” will probably find what he had to Comcast Sportsnet Chicago’s Tracey Myers (also providing updates on Twitter) scary, though it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to understand that the NHLPA isn’t simply going to say, “Roll back our salaries? Okay! Then give you 7% of $3.3-plus billion in revenues back? Okay!):
“The starting point is, the players made enormous concessions last time around,” Fehr said. “The game generates a lot more revenue than it did before. You put those things together, it ought to point you in a direction where this negotiation should go. I’m not going to prejudge it, but there’s plenty of time to negotiate an agreement between now and Sept. 15.”
Whether decisions are made quickly will be determined by the attitudes of both parties, as well as whether issues between the league and NHLPA are on a large or small scale. Typically with large-scale issues, neither group wants to budge on their demands, which can further lead to a lockout.
“Everyone will have to be on the same page,” added [Alex] Ovechkin when asked about each player’s involvement. “Of course it’ll be hard, but it’s going to get done.”
But a lockout is not guaranteed if the new CBA is not completed on time. The league can continue operating as long as both sides agree to keep negotiating and play under the terms of the old CBA.
Fehr says he hopes to have an agreement among the players made by the conclusion of their final meeting on Wednesday afternoon. The NHLPA plans to begin negotiations with the league very quickly.
Fehr told the Associated Press that the PA has no intentions of striking for the first time since a 10-day spat over trading card and photo revenues in 1992, nor do they wish to engage in any sort of “work stoppage”...
“None of that is coming from our side,” he said. “That’s the first thing. Secondly, we have not made a proposal. We haven’t heard an owners’ proposal.”
“There’s nothing magic about Sept. 15. The law is that if you don’t have a new agreement, and as long as both sides are willing to keep negotiating, you can continue to play under the terms of the old one until you reach an agreement,” he said.
Asked if that could happen in this instance, Fehr said, “All I know is that in baseball, there were any number of occasions in which we played while the parties were continuing to negotiate.” A work stoppage, he said, would be a “last resort.”
“The problem that we’ve had in the salary-cap sports going back 20-plus years now is that in many instances, historically - I’m not saying it’ll be true this time - a lockout has been the negotiation strategy of choice,” Fehr added. “It’s unfortunate because it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hopefully, that’s not going to be true this time.”
Bettman said last month that the league had record revenues in excess of $3.1 billion, but he refused to say how much of that was profit. How to divide the revenue is a huge issue, with owners wanting to cut the players’ share from 57 percent.
“We want to keep it where it is and they want to probably bring it down,” Phoenix’s Shane Doan said. “I understand that’s the way it is. ... Everybody wants more. I’m sure they do, too. It’s part of labor. That’s the way it is.”
How deep the sides dig in could go a long way toward determining whether the NHL becomes the third major sports league in the past two years to go through a work stoppage. The NBA played a shortened season with a condensed schedule after a labor dispute pushed the start of the season back to late December, and the NFL went through a lockout that wiped out most of the offseason training program a year ago and delayed training camp.
“I don’t know if it’s inevitable,” Doan said. “That threat’s there. That’s what’s going to get everything done. Everything tends to go to the deadline of what’s going to cost people the most. We’ll just have to deal with that.”
It could have been an all-star team. First Alex Ovechkin strode through the hotel lobby and into a meeting room. Soon Jonathan Toews, John Tavares, Shea Weber, Shane Doan and more than 40 other NHLers followed — as sure a sign as any about how seriously members of the NHL Players’ Association are taking their last set of meetings before negotiations begin on a new collective bargaining agreement.
“I think everybody has to be involved,” Ovechkin said Monday. “It’s the future for everybody. ... It’s our lives.”
This is uncharted territory for the two-time Hart Trophy winner. Even though Ovechkin seems like he’s been everywhere since taking the NHL by storm, this was the first time during his seven-year career that he’s attended a union meeting held in North America. He’s come here to stump for the importance of having NHLers participate in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia while also familiarizing himself with some of the other key issues expected to be on the table.
Donald Fehr has repeatedly talked about how important it is for a wide variety of players to be engaged in the process. Now that he’s reached the moment of truth — formal CBA talks with the NHL will begin “very quickly” after this session ends Wednesday, according to Fehr — it appears as though the NHLPA’s executive director got what he wanted.
“It’s absolutely clear to me that they are (engaged),” said Fehr. “This is true from the youngest player that just got here and is sort of looking around trying to figure out if he belongs and some of the biggest stars that we’ve got. You’ll have a bunch of players of varying levels of celebrity that will be here this week and there’ll be all kinds of players coming through the bargaining meetings once they start. ... I expect a very wide participation from all parts of the membership.”
This is a change from the last round of CBA negotiations, which were conducted by former NHLPA boss Bob Goodenow with a seven-player executive board and ultimately saw the 2004-05 season wiped out by a lockout. A negotiating committee of more than 30 players will be unveiled this week and Fehr is encouraging any other member of the union to attend bargaining sessions as well. If it all goes to plan, the NHLPA should have strength in numbers.
Interestingly, Fehr intends to take time during this week’s meetings to review the factors that led to labour strife and a lost season last time around. The unspoken part of that strategy is that he wants to bring young players up to speed on what went wrong in an effort to avoid seeing the mistakes of the past repeated.
Fehr said the members of the players’ negotiating committee will likely be released Wednesday—at the conclusion of the meetings. While the path of the negotiations remains unknown, most of the players who spoke Monday had the same basic hope: to see a new deal come together without another long work stoppage being part of the process.
“The negotiation last time was more about the concepts and this is more about numbers,” Doan said.
Added [Brian] Campbell: “We have a good product going right now. Fans are excited. It’s been different teams going to the (Stanley Cup) Playoffs. It’s something to be excited about. You don’t want to ruin that. I think for the owner’s sake, we can’t afford (a work stoppage) and for the player’s sake we can’t afford to not be playing. There’s too much lost for some of us the last time.”
“I mean when it comes down to it, everyone wants to play hockey,” Toews said. “We all want to play hockey and the fans want to see hockey. We just want to see things come together for both sides and be sure that both sides feel respected and feel they’ve been treated fairly.”
This is particularly interesting to me, because last time around, the NHLPA had someone who was happy working in secret in bulldog and psomeone who bullied players and owners equally in Bob Goodenow—until that blew up in his face when assistant ED Ted Saskin, executive committee president Trevor Linden and fellow exec Vincent Damphousse revolted, working with NHL deputy commissioner bill Daly to write what was supposed to be a “dream” CBA in 2005 while engineering Goodenow’s departure:
“In a general sense, obviously we’ll be spending a lot of time in these meetings talking about the process and the substance of the impending CBA negotiations,” said Fehr. “When you come into a situation like this ... you want to make sure you’ve done everything you can to bring the players up to speed to involve them and make sure you understand what they want and what they think is important.”
Fehr said the famous faces of his membership who were present this week merely shows the overall level of interest all players have in the negotiations.
“I don’t know whether that particularly sends a message, but it’s absolutely clear to me that they are (interested),” Fehr said. “You’ll have a bunch of players of varying celebrity, if I can put it that way, that will be here this week and there will be all kinds of players coming to the bargaining meetings once they start and attending the regional meetings we have scheduled in August. I expect very wide participation from all parts of the membership.”
Bob Goodenow was the kind of man who those of you that might still believe secret “union bosses” are living large off anyone who’s “forced” to join a labor union, and as much as Goodenow was a bully and Saskin’s short tenure with the NHL was marked by nothing but hypocrisy and tacit complicity, Paul Kelly’s election in 2007 gave the NHLPA its first fully functional and transparent union in the organization’s history…But he was forced out by players in an equally mysterious manner, and now Fehr’s trying to do his best to take the NHLPA away from reality show status and point it in a proactive, player and even fan-friendly direction.
He’s not going to find an easy set of negotiating partners in Gary Bettman, Daly and the appropriately-named Bob Batterman, the league’s outside counsel, but they’re going to be facing off against Fehr and players willing to put in tens of thousands of air miles in this summer in meetings that will be open to any player, and especially in this day and age, and especially given that Fehr will not impose a “gag order” on any player, unlike the NHL, that means accountability and no room for the kinds of side-deals slid into the CBA in 2005 that Chris Chelios, Trent Klatt and Dwayne Roloson had to make pariahs out of themselves to force out into the public, or the kinds of player-versus-player acrimony that ironically placed former Wing Mathieu Schnieder, someone who didn’t buy the “dissidents’” complaints about the side-deals, into his current position as a special assistant to Fehr.
Long story short, while you may buy into whatever BS the NHL attempts to craft to insist that it’s somehow “fair” to fans to possibly lock out millionaire players that we’re somehow supposed to resent less than the billionaire owners who’ve locked fans out twice over the last seventeen years..
The players aren’t going to cave easily, nor will the NHL do anything less than try to bulldoze ‘em, encouraging you to “Fear Fehr” all the way, but this is going to be different, at least if the players have their say, as they told Yahoo Sports’ Nicholas J. Cotsonika at the NHL Awards:
“I don’t think anyone on either side wouldn’t tell you that we want to get back out there and we want a fair deal that lets everyone continue to play hockey and not miss any time,” said St. Louis Blues captain David Backes. “With the ability to bring fans to this game and grow the sport, it’d be a shame if we miss any time, and I think everyone’s on that same page, and that’s encouraging.”
The players are more organized and better prepared than they used to be, but it’s easy to be that way now. It’s harder to remain that way when the negotiation gets mind-numbing with their membership recovering from the grueling season, spread out around the globe.
“I think it’s always better to have players involved, because those are the guys that do play and they represent all the 700-plus players,” said Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, one of the many European players who is spending the summer at home. “They know from their point of view what would probably make the game better.”
Those who are involved directly have to inform those who are not and gather their feedback, via conference calls, Skype, e-mail, internal websites, whatever.
“Taking advantage of that membership is something that I don’t think happened in the past,” Backes said. “It was a few guys that had that ability, and when the deal was done, they brought it to the rest of the guys. Without disclosing everything, I think the organization and the inclusion of really everyone in the union is something that is important moving forward and something that Don’s really instilled. You can’t have 20 guys making a deal for 700, because it just doesn’t work.”
That’s good, really good, given that, as Cotsonika suggests in the balance of his article (yes, he’s providing updates on Twitter, too), the percentage of revenues is just the start, with no one knowing what exactly the league will do given the gag order on GM’s, members of the Board and Governors and owners, and million-dollar fines imposed upon anyone who dares speak out…
How will the players feel if the league asks them to reduce their share of revenues from 57 percent to some dramatically lower number? How will they feel if the league asks them to eliminate or lower the salary floor, which requires teams to spend a minimum amount? How will they feel if the league asks them to restrict the structure of contracts, so players and teams can’t sign long-term deals that skirt the cap?
And given what Fehr’s going to suggest that the players deserve a bigger say in the governance of the game:
How will the league feel if the players respond by asking for increased revenue sharing, so the rich teams have to give more support to the poor teams? How will the league feel if the players ask for the elimination of escrow, so money isn’t held out of their paychecks to make sure the owners haven’t spent too much? How will the league feel if the players want to change the supplemental discipline system, or scheduling, or any number of other things? Fehr is expected to introduce creative concepts from economics to marketing, and it remains to be seen how receptive the owners will be, especially because Fehr, once the longtime leader of the Major League Baseball Players Association, has a background in another sport.
But the bottom line for the players is that they want to play and that they don’t plan on doing anything that will keep you and me from continuing to follow our favorite teams, as Jonathan Toews suggested to the Chicago Tribune’s Kuc in the second version of his article (as noted by MLive’s Brendan Savage):
“What it comes down to, everyone wants to play hockey,” Blackhawks captain Toews said. “We want to play hockey and the fans want to see hockey. We just want to see things come together for both sides and make sure both sides feel like they’ve been respected and treated fairly.”
The likely biggest negotiating point will be revenue sharing, with realignment and participation in the Olympics among other issues. Fehr pointed out that neither side has presented its case so there’s not a strong sense of how far apart the sides are on any issue. He said it’s possible the season could begin even if an agreement isn’t in place by Sept. 15.
“There’s plenty of time to negotiate an agreement between now and Sept. 15,” Fehr said. “By the way, there’s nothing magic about Sept. 15. The law is if you don’t have a new agreement, as long as both sides are willing to keep negotiating you continue under the terms of the old one until you reach an agreement.”
The fact many of the league’s top stars are among the slew of players attending the meetings is a good indicator the NHLPA has a unified front.
“Everybody has to be on the same page,” the Capitals’ Ovechkin said. “You have to be involved. It’s the future for everybody.”
“You have to work together on both sides,” the Panthers’ Campbell said. “With Donald’s experience guiding us we’ll do things a smart way and get to it. We all want to get this resolved.”
The players want to play. Whether the owners believe that tweaking the dream CBA, which people who rebelled against the players they were representing helped them craft, is worth burning down the village in order to save it, especially in a day and age where fans have so many more opportunities to find alternate ways to spend their time, energy, emotions, efforts and discretionary incomes entertaining themselves with…
Well, that’s up to Chairman Mao, Daly, the BoG and the owners.
I’ve never been anything other than a biased Red Wings fan, and as these CBA negotiations take place, I’m not going to try to be objective here, either. When Bettman and the gang brought in former SEC chairman Arthur “Enron” Levitt to craft a BS report suggesting that player salaries were invariably tied to ticket prices, and that a hard cap with an ironclad link to revenues would permanently reduce and/or eliminate the “inflationary spiral” of ticket prices somehow magically not tied to anything other than supply and demand, I didn’t buy any of that s*** for a second, and threw my weight behind the PA.
That was a very unpopular stance for a fan to take at the time, but even as I was working on a message board instead of a blog, I stuck with it, and during this round of talks, I’m going to stick by my PA-supporting guns. They aren’t the ones who’ve already canceled pre-season rookie tournaments or season-opening games in Europe, and they’re not the ones at least dropping heavy enough hints that the MSM seems to believe that a lockout lasting until December will be a matter of course for a league emboldened by fans’ forgiving attitudes toward the NFL and NBA. The players want to play and the players want to continue representing the teams, cities and fans that pay their salaries.
It’s the owners that might be willing to screw you and me over to take the screws to the employees who are their biggest moneymaking product, and I won’t stand by that for a millisecond.
Update: Speaking of which, from the Globe and Mail’s David Shoalts:
About nine months ago, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman put together a wish list for the coming labour negotiations with the players. Like anything to do with collective bargaining, it was mainly about money: Lowering the players’ share of revenue from its current 57 per cent to less than 50, cutting players’ rights to salary arbitration, not allowing wealthy teams to get bad contracts off their books by sending the player to the minor leagues, clamping down on front-loaded contracts and limiting the lengths of any player contract. There is also a push from some of the small-revenue teams to lower the minimum payrolls, or salary-cap floor, to ease their financial woes.
The way the players see it, they gave the owners a 24-per-cent rollback in all of their salaries in 2005 when the current agreement was reached, in addition to finally agreeing to a salary cap based on revenue, at a cost of losing the entire 2004-05 season to a lockout. Even though both the players’ unions in the wealthier NFL and NBA agreed to reduce their share of league revenue to narrow bands of 47 to 48.5 per cent (NFL) or 49 to a little more than 51 per cent (NBA) in recent settlements, the NHL players feel they gave up a lot seven years ago and don’t need to be as generous this time when the agreement expires Sept. 15.
Other issues for the players are the escrow system that came with the salary cap, in which money is withheld from their pay cheques to ensure they receive the proper share of league revenue, developing a concussion protocol, travel and scheduling and participation in the Olympics.
The trouble is the NHL still has the same over-riding problem it did seven years ago – the 10 or so teams at the top of the revenue chart make all kinds of money while teams in the middle struggle to break even and the 10 teams at the bottom lose millions of dollars a year.
Introducing a salary cap based on revenue only exacerbated the problem in the case of the poorest teams. As the Toronto Maple Leafs and the other Canadian teams, aided by something else no one saw coming seven years ago, the Canadian dollar at par, piled up the revenue, the small-revenue teams found it harder and harder to hit the minimum salary limit each year. In the first year of the current agreement, 2005-06, the cap ceiling was $39-million (all currency U.S.). In the season just ended, with the NHL announcing record revenue of $3.3-billion, the cap floor was $49-million.
The owners’ solution is to cut down the players’ share of the revenue. Now that the NFL and NBA players agreed to take 50 per cent or less, the NHL owners are confident they can do the same. The players, though, see the solution through more revenue sharing. It was introduced in the current agreement, albeit in limited fashion, but the Coyotes and Panthers et al are still swimming in red ink.
“The players had their salaries rolled back by 24 per cent but somehow none of that [money] got into the hands of the small-revenue owners,” said player agent Anton Thun of Toronto. “The reason for that is the revenue redistribution model didn’t work.”
Since many small-revenue teams feel the current revenue-sharing system is too restrictive because they need to hit certain growth targets or they lose part of their share, any labour disruption could be as much about squabbles among the owners as it is between them and the players.
And therein lies the rub: the owners aren’t nearly as united as they were the last time around, because this CBA didn’t solve fundamental problems, and instead, has forced those who are earning the most to subsidize teams that perhaps represent Bettman’s worst business decisions, like the Coyotes, Panthers and Predators…
But Bettman was able to ram through a realignment proposal that a decent chunk of the Board didn’t buy into through to serve as his first PR shot across the PA’s bow, and maybe he’ll be able to convince the owners that another re-set will somehow magically stop the bleeding for teams beholden to a salary cap determined by averaging league-wide revenues instead of taking teams’ individual financial situations into account.
Parity may be a wonderful thing, but is it worth bankrupting oneself for, and is it worth losing even more revenue and more time given that the NHL doesn’t really want to do anything to address the fundamental issues plaguing a sixth of its businesses?
That’s a question the owners and Board members have to weigh going forward, too.
Update #2: And Sportsnet’s Ryan Dixon offers something of a “cheat sheet” of terms you might want to know:
PER-CENTING A NEW OFFER: If the salary cap was the buzz term last time out, expect to hear the phrase “per cent of revenues” ad nauseum in the summer of 2012. Recent work stoppages in the NFL and NBA called attention to the fact those leagues dole out a lower percentage of league revenues to its workforce. Presently, 57 per cent of NHL revenues are devoted to player salaries and the league is widely expected to push hard to drive that figure much closer to the 50-per cent mark.
FEHR FACTOR: Another difference in the dynamic now versus the last round of negotiations is the man representing the 700-plus NHL players. Don Fehr is, of course, best known for leading the Major League Baseball Players’ Association strike that ultimately forced the cancellation of the 1994 World Series. Fehr is the fourth executive director of the NHLPA since 2004 and—though the ‘94 strike is the default attachment to his name—one of the defining characteristics of Fehr as a labour leader is his insistence that as many players as possible become informed on the issues. He’s a staunch believer that he’s merely there to act in the best interest of the association’s members and it’s on them to be engaged in the process.
SOME FLOORING DEMANDS: The salary floor is interesting because it sets up as not just owners vs. players, but owners of small-market teams vs. players and big-market owners. The rich guys who run teams that struggle to generate revenue aren’t crazy about the fact the current CBA mandates they spend a fairly significant minimum amount on salaries. Players like a high floor because it obviously means more money must get thrown around and owners of wealthy teams aren’t anxious to toss dough to their weaker cousins via revenue sharing if they’re not required to at least spend a good chunk of cash themselves.
CIRCUMVENTION PREVENTION: One of the delicious ironies of CBA negotiations is that after owners and GMs are done binding together to battle the NHLPA, the managers then return to their separate burghs and set about finding ways to circumvent the rules they just fought to institute. The past seven seasons saw the proliferation of contacts with immense term built into them for the purpose of lowering the annual cap hit. For years it’s been suggested that, rather than simply refusing to hand out these deals, owners and GMs will try to mandate a limit on contract terms. Perhaps this becomes a situation where age is a factor—no player over 30 can sign a deal for more than five years, or something to that effect.
FROM RUSSIA WITHOUT LOVE: Surely the topic of the 2014 Olympics—the players want to go, the owners, not so much—will come up, but it’s nowhere near deal-breaker status.
It’s hard to know if there are any issues simmering beneath the surface that could yet bubble up into sticking points. But for now, there’s enough contentious ground to cover to expect some heated exchanges between the owners and NHLPA throughout the summer.
Biggy motherf***ing disclaimer: This CBA stuff is scary, it’s weighty, and it’s very often sensationalized in the press, just like the BS about unrestricted free agents’ possible landing spots is being milked for all it’s worth. I am very serious about trying to cover CBA negotiations decently, but I’m not going to rush to my laptop and post Every Single Frickin’ Story That Is Ever Written about these negotiations. There’s no point in taking part in the sensationalizing of what is already a weighty enough issue without the intervention of media members with something to gain by being the mouthpiece of owners, GM’s or commissioners who can’t speak, floating “thought balloons” or potential negotiating strategies to insiders to see how the public reacts.
The goal here isn’t to engage in that kind of speculation. That’s just stupid, and I’m scared enough about the prospect of no training camp in September for the third time in my 20-year tenure as a Red Wings fan.
Update #3: Sportsnet’s Michael Grange did a great job of sensationalizing things.
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The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.