SBD/December 31, 2012/Leagues and Governing Bodies

NHL Lockout, Day 107: Union Preparing Counterproposal For League

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NHLPA Exec Dir Donald Fehr Sunday was "supposed to deliver ... a response to the league's latest offer," but the union decided it "needed more time before getting back in the room with league officials," according to Bruce Garrioch of the OTTAWA SUN.  The NHLPA informed NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly late in the afternoon that they "weren't ready to return to the table because they're still working on a response." The players held a "series of conference calls and face-to-face meetings Sunday morning," and Fehr was "huddled with his closest advisors working on a counter-proposal that will be tabled Monday." A league exec on Sunday said, "I'm sure you're going to see Fehr try to squeeze the league for more. He still feels he has time to push a few more buttons." A union source said, "We're going to find out how bad the NHL wants a season." Garrioch notes the players were "happy to get an offer Thursday, but they weren't completely pleased it was almost 300 pages, accompanied by a drop-dead date of Jan. 11 to get a deal in place and the season starting on Jan. 19." Sources said that the players "aren't thrilled with what the NHL tabled despite movement in three key areas: Contract term limits; the variance on deals and compliance buyouts the league initially refused to discuss." Garrioch notes there will be "several teams that aren't going to love" Bettman's strategy of a $60M salary cap, which is down from $70.2M this season. There are 12 teams with "more than that already committed to salaries next season" (OTTAWA SUN, 12/31). In N.Y., Jeff Klein notes Sunday's face-to-face session at the NHL office was "the first formal meeting between the sides since negotiations broke off Dec. 13." The weekend talks "did not involve player representatives or owners" (N.Y. TIMES, 12/31). The CP's Chris Johnston noted the league has "shown a willingness to bend on key issues." The NHLPA also came away from "informational sessions Saturday and Sunday," where aspects of the offer "were clarified, feeling like there could be some room for even more movement." Among the "biggest issues for the union is a proposed salary cap" of $60M in '13-14, "which would severely limit the amount of money available for free agents this summer" (CP, 12/30).

PRESSURE IS ON: The GLOBE & MAIL's Ebner & Mirtle cited an owner as saying that the "key element is the addition of an effective deadline" in the latest offer. He said that he "believed about three-quarters of players would vote in favour of playing a season." However, numerous owners are "skeptical" about Fehr and the group "hopes the deadline puts pressure on Fehr." A source said that players "don't feel the league gave up much ground -- but it was enough to get talks restarted" (GLOBE & MAIL, 12/29). ESPN.com's Burnside & Custance debated whether the NHL's new offer is "enough to get the players back on the ice" (ESPN.com, 12/28). In N.Y., Larry Brooks cited sources as saying that Bettman received "pressure in the form of phone calls from big-market owners -- including the Rangers' James Dolan ... to resurrect bargaining" (N.Y. POST, 12/29). The CBC's Tim Wharnsby noted Fehr "kept counseling his players to be patient and wait out" the NHL, believing the offers "will continue to get better." Whether Bettman was "motivated by the players' threat to file a disclaimer of interest by the Jan. 2nd deadline" or because he was "being pressured by the owners to avoid a second cancelled season, he sweetened the NHL's latest offer" (CBC.ca, 12/29). The CBC's Don Cherry on Saturday night tweeted, "Fehr naturally will say this isn't good enough and squeeze for more. But like I said 2 months ago after the association squeezes the last drop it will be settled." He added, "The only dark cloud I see is if the association pushes too hard we could go off a cliff" (OTTAWASUN.com, 12/30).

CREDIT WHERE IT IS DUE: In Philadelphia, Sam Carchidi wrote, "Give the NHL credit for stepping forward and trying to get the players back on the ice." It is expected that Fehr will "fight for every nickel before finally getting a deal done around Jan. 11, when there is no more time to negotiate." That would "enable the season to start Jan. 19" (PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER, 12/30). The GLOBE & MAIL's Eric Duhatschek wrote the "most critical decision for Fehr will be to assess whether Bettman's time line is real." If Fehr concludes that the NHL is "creating an artificial deadline here, he may well advise them to wait even longer, and see how far the league will legitimately go to get some sort of schedule played this year" (GLOBE & MAIL, 12/30). The N.Y. POST's Brooks wrote it is "time ... for these players to be selfish and put themselves first, ahead of the generation that will follow." This is going to be "a bad deal (again, all within context) for the players, a very bad deal for players whose contracts expire at the end of this season, and a worse deal for the fans in big markets who pay the freight for their small-market cousins, but whose teams will be limited by a tightening cap." It is going to be a deal that "enriches big-market owners exponentially, puts money in the bank accounts of the small-marketers too, but ultimately will fail to solve the league’s problems" (N.Y. POST, 12/30). The NATIONAL POST's Bruce Arthur writes NHL players essentially are "paying to make a slightly better deal, and to perhaps make the league think twice before locking them out the next time the CBA comes around" (NATIONAL POST, 12/31).

ALL ROADS LEAD TO FEHR: In Toronto, Damien Cox wrote a deal "won't be the colossal victory for the owners many had predicted, and that will be because the passive-aggressive approach of ... Fehr prevented a rout." It always will be debatable whether the players "could have got a similar deal months ago and saved a lot of money." Fehr's ability to "wait and then wait some more has taken its toll." If Fehr responds to the owners' latest offer "with a new laundry list of items, as has been his pattern all along, hardliners could end up taking over on the NHL side, perhaps even pushing Bettman out and hurtling towards some kind of NHL nuclear winter." A league source said, "If this or something close to this doesn’t get it done, we’re not playing." But Cox wrote, "At this point, more reasonable types in both camps are likely to prevail" (TORONTO STAR, 12/29). ESPN.com's Scott Burnside wrote, "We could spend, oh, a month or two talking about the missteps and the wonky strategies employed by the NHL's owners and, to a lesser degree, the players. But what is the point at this late hour?" If there is "a sign that at least the owners understand that the day of reckoning is at hand, it is that they did not immediately characterize this latest offer as some sort of 'final offer' or a hill upon which anyone would be willing to die." Fehr will have to "decide just how far he can push the envelope without leaving everything in tatters, including his own reputation" (ESPN.com, 12/29).

MISSTEPS OF LEADERSHIP: In Edmonton, Peter Adler wrote of the new offer, "Any reason for optimism? Absolutely not." That is because of the "strategy and tactics employed" by Fehr. Adler: "Did he share the gist of the [owners' latest offer] with his membership? Absolutely not." He told his members the union "got a new offer, it's studying it, there might be some information conference calls that might lead to something and, then again, they might not, here are the points we disagree on, stay tuned." But a summary of the league proposal "became public, leaving quite a few players gasping: how come the union chose not to share this information with us?" (EDMONTONJOURNAL.com, 12/29). In Montreal, Jack Todd wrote this lockout has been "a spectacularly erratic, Alice in Blunderland performance on Bettman’s part." If his "public appearances during this toxic lockout are anything to go by, Bettman is about as sane and grounded as Randy Quaid." While Fehr has "remained cool, calm and collected throughout, Bettman often has been overheated, hysterical and scattered." Todd: "Bettman gambled that Fehr couldn’t keep the players behind him, and he lost. Big-time" (Montreal GAZETTE, 12/30).

GETTING BACK TO BUSINESS? ESPN.com's Burnside in a separate piece noted the NHL is "starting to show the first, shuddering signs of reanimation." There are "preparatory signs of life." NHL Senior VP/Scheduling & Broadcasting Steve Hatze Petros has been "constantly working on truncated schedules based on the moving target of a potential start date." In addition, NHL Senior VP/Hockey Operations Mike Murphy and staff "have been working with the information technology personnel at the NHL’s 30 rinks during the lockout to upgrade technology infrastructure" (ESPN.com, 12/30). YAHOO SPORTS' Greg Wyshynski noted NHL VP/Arena & Event Operations Dan O'Neill on Friday "sent a memo addressed to all 'Arena Technical Coordinators, Video Goal Judges and Video Goal Technicians.'" O'Neill's e-mail was "the 'first time all year' the officials have received this type of correspondence from the league" (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 12/29). In Pittsburgh, Rob Rossi cited details for plans for a season that would begin "within about three weeks." Team sales staff "could begin selling single-game tickets by Jan. 15," and clubs are "planning for seven days of training camp practices."  There would be "no exhibition games" (PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW, 12/30).

SEASON-TICKET HOLDERS NOT SHYING AWAY: The GLOBE & MAIL's James Mirtle noted there are "more than 100,000 Canadians who hold season tickets for their local NHL team, but fewer than 200 are believed to have cancelled during the lockout so far." Three of the teams contacted last week were "willing to put an exact figure on the number of cancellations they have had over the past 3 1/2 months: The Winnipeg Jets reported no cancellations; the Toronto Maple Leafs indicated they had had just one; and the Montreal Canadiens noted only eight people had given up their tickets." The Canucks said they have “averaged a couple of cancellations per week." The Senators have had "less than 1 per cent of their 11,300 season-ticket base walk away." The Flames and Oilers declined to comment. Canadian season-ticket holders "have been hanging on for two major reasons," number one being that if fans "give up their seats, they know they may never get them back." The Canucks have "nearly 7,000 more seats spoken for on their wait list." For the Canadiens and Jets, whose fans "waited 16 years for the return of their franchise last season, the number is closer to 8,000." The other way Canadian NHL teams have "kept their fans in the fold is by giving them options for what to do with their money during the lockout." In most cities, fans have "been able to either receive refunds as games have been cancelled or collect interest on their cash if they leave it with the team" (GLOBE & MAIL, 12/29).
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