Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bettman's opening salvo a discouraging one

Initial bargaining stance to NHLPA bodes ill for hockey this autumn

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MONTREAL -- I hate talking hockey in July. Then again, it looks like that's all we'll be able to do in November -- talk hockey.

It's probably no coincidence news of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's scorched-earth proposal to Donald Fehr and the NHL Players Association leaked at the beginning of a July weekend, when you were swatting flies at the cabin, putting down industrial quantities of Molson's finest or cooling off at the neighbourhood pool.

Bettman is likely to get away with it, or at least part of it, because at this point, the only thing he has to fear is Fehr himself.

Some folks in these parts blame Fehr -- former executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association -- for the Montreal Expos' lost shot at a World Series back in 1994 -- but among sports union leaders, Fehr is up there with Marvin Miller. He was brought in because he's a heavyweight and this is a heavyweight bout, with enormous stakes.

If you thought Bettman might be at least somewhat conciliatory in order to save the season, you thought wrong. As Larry Brooks of the New York Post (admittedly not Bettman's dearest friend) tweeted: "NHL proposal amounts to declaration of war against NHLPA."

It's only an initial bargaining position -- but for Bettman to propose lowering the players' share of revenues from 57 per cent to 46 per cent is ludicrous, especially at a time when the league is boasting about the increase in overall revenue.

The reports (the initial one coming from Renaud Lavoie at RDS) say the NHL offer would also limit contracts to five years (the one plank with which we are in agreement).

But the proposal would also force players to wait 10 years to become unrestricted free agents, do away with signing bonuses, extend low-paying entry-level contracts for a five-year term rather than the current three, and put an end to salary arbitration. Future deals would also have to have an equal value for each year to do away with front-loading contracts.

This after boasting league revenue has soared to a record $3.3 billion from $2.2 billion in 2003-04, before the last lockout. Back then, players were taking 75 per cent of a smaller pie. Now they're down to 57 per cent and Bettman wants to cut it by a further 11 per cent, and to achieve more than that in terms of his overall cuts by all the changes in the structure of free agency and contracts.

The Edmonton Journal calculated that the 43 per cent of the money divided among the owners amounted to $1.42 billion (after the players were paid) meaning that on a per-team basis, revenue increased from $18.3 million in 2003-04 to $47.3 million in 2011-12.

If some franchises are ailing, then, the problem is the league does not have an adequate revenue-sharing system in place, not that the owners' share of revenue is inadequate. Rather than share with each other, however, the owners will attempt to fix their problems by going after the players.

Then, as soon as a new CBA is in place, the owners will go to work to circumvent it. And the fans, the people who swear up and down they'll never watch another NHL game, will be the first ones in line to buy season tickets when the league returns.

Might as well plan to spend the fall getting to know the wife and family, fellas. Whatever you do, don't buy the spin Bettman will try to put on another lockout. This column will be 100 per cent behind Fehr and the players, every step of the way.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 16, 2012 C2

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