NHL

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

All spin, no bargaining

Gulf between NHL owners, players too wide to prevent lockout

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NEW YORK -- If you are a hockey fan, you should be angry today with the lack of energy being directed toward a resolution of the current labour impasse in the NHL.

Rather than bargain, the union and ownership sides involved have been spending the final hours of the current agreement trying to spin their side of the story and curry public favour. All of it is useless and counterproductive to a new deal getting done.

The result is a lockout is almost certain to go into effect at 11 p.m. on Saturday. Training camps will be cancelled almost immediately, followed by pre-season games being scrubbed as early as next week, and soon NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will be telling us the league is postponing the beginning of the regular season.

The moment hockey fans have dreaded and fretted over is almost upon us. The NHL is about to have another work stoppage just eight years after cancelling a full season to try and put its economics in order. The players have drawn their line in the sand and the owners have now responded with one of their own. The lines are not even close.

All the talk of escrow and percentages and revenue-sharing can keep bouncing back and forth between the two sides. It's meaningless. Want some reality? If you're a Winnipeg Jets season-ticket holder, you'll be getting it sometime next week when the club is forced to explain what it's going to do with the money you've paid for tickets for games that aren't going to be played.

The players put on a pep rally over the last 48 hours but did little to advance the process of negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement. For its part, the NHL collected all its owners in New York on Thursday and the most salient bit of news they could offer from their session was they'd voted unanimously to go ahead with a lockout.

The bargaining that has been done to this point? Both sides have let the other know it won't count for much after Saturday passes.

"What we said was the proposal that we made, and the various things that we were prepared to do to try to avoid the damage to the business that is occurring and will continue to occur, would not be on the table because of the damage, and those proposals no longer make any sense after the expiration of the CBA," said Bettman. "Interestingly enough, the proposals that we have received from the players' association have been couched in identical terms, namely that their proposal should be considered off the table once the CBA expires."

Union head Don Fehr, always a little less menacing at the podium than Bettman, delivered a similar message.

"What I have said before and the only thing I'm prepared to say now is that if we get past that point, then the players are as free to reconsider their positions as the owners. That's all I can say," said Fehr. Both sides spent lots of time blaming the other for where they are today.

"We went to the union last summer, a year ago, and said, 'We're ready to begin negotiations.' We were told, 'We're not ready. All-star (game).' All-star (game) we were told. 'We're not ready. Playoffs.' Playoffs we were told, 'No, Stanley Cup final,' " said Bettman. "We actually met, Bill (Daly, NHL deputy commissioner)and I, with Steve (Fehr, NHLPA special counsel) and Don on June 4 before Game 3 to give them a sense of where we thought we needed to go."

"Again, they said they weren't prepared to meet until June 29. Looking back in hindsight, it looks like there was no urgency on the part of the players' association to engage or get anything done. What's happened over the summer seems to be reinforcing that. I can't and I won't speculate as to why that might be their intention, but it is what it is. If you look at the record, you look at it in hindsight, I think it's crystal-clear."

Fehr, of course, has his side of the story.

"We haven't ignored the owners -- far from it," he said. "We have proposed that under these circumstances, we can construct an agreement in which as revenues grow, players' compensation would be protected but would grow significantly more slowly than revenues, so that after a few years, the league can grow out of perceived difficulties that it has," said Fehr. "It does require the owners to grow revenues. That's their job. The players' job is to play the game in the way that the fans want."

The gulf between the two sides has been laid bare by the league and acknowledged by the union. Ownership believes it spends too much money on player salaries. The problem is, the players don't want to give anything up.

"I was asked the following question by the players a lot Wednesday and it came up (Thursday), and it is the most obvious question the proposals have covered, which is: What's in this for the players? What do they get out of this agreement?" said Fehr. "In the last agreement, at least there was significant movement in the players' direction on the players' contracting issues like salary arbitration and free agency. What's on the table now appears to say we have to have the salary concessions all over again, plus we have to go in the owners' direction on all the player-contracting issues and undo that portion of the last agreement. Less money, fewer rights."

Bettman says the last deal was too good for the players and the owners are under no obligation to extend that inequity.

"We've had seven years of incredible competitive balance," said Bettman. "Twenty-nine clubs have made the playoffs. We have had seven different Stanley Cup champions. The game on the ice has never been better. That's a function of this system," said Bettman. "The system, as originally negotiated, in our view, needs some adjustments. If it turned out to be too rich a deal for the first seven years, we lived with it, but I'm not going to apologize for saying, 'You know what? We need to adjust it.' "

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 14, 2012 C1

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Updated on Friday, September 14, 2012 at 6:34 AM CDT: adds fact box

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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