[Editor's note: We try not to publish articles of this length but this is a special circumstance. Be advised, this is a long one.]
When the NHL put forth its latest proposal last Tuesday, commissioner Gary Bettman said such proposal was contingent on a deal being reached by Oct. 25 in order for a full 82-game season to begin. The NHLPA responded with two (partially three) proposals of their own, ones not close to being based off the NHL's which then league summarily dismissed as insulting and trite and then fled Toronto not soon after.
Since that meeting last Thursday, when both sides expressed disappointment that a common language has not been found in these negotiations, neither the NHL nor the NHLPA have met.
With just under two days before that Oct. 25 deadline, the NHLPA reportedly reached out to Gary Bettman and Bill Daly about a possible meeting on Wednesday -- or anytime -- which the NHL immediately declined to attend.
"They have indicated a willingness to meet, but they also told us they had very little interest in the proposal we tabled last Tuesday," said deputy commissioner Bill Daly. "(They) also said they weren't making a new proposal. What would we be meeting about?"
If a deal is not reached by tomorrow, Oct. 25, then expect for the NHL to cancel another very large chunk of games. An 82-game season will likely never happen and the best we could hope for is a 60-game season that could start around December. That is, if the two knuckleheads leading this debacle decide to start playing nice.
"The league is apparently unwilling to meet," said Steve Fehr, NHLPA special counsel. "That is unfortunate as it is hard to make progress without talking."
So, once again, we have nothing but pure gamemanship occurring and not actual negotiation. The league and the union seem to be more concerned with the PR battle and slinging insults through the media than actual and meaningful negotiations, with each side dug into their respective trenches and convinced they are right and basing their argument on fundamentals and principles that what seems to be actual logic -- with the end game being a very possible cancellation of the entire 2012-13 season.
The idea of a canceled season -- or even a partial season -- is unfathomable. That the NHL, or the players, believe that this league could walk away from another delayed or cancelled season unscathed is at best delusional at worst a prideful and arrogant decision that could have disastrous and long-lasting effects on the league and sport we once held so dear to our hearts.
There's a very large difference in how the fans feel about this lockout than the one that occurred in 2004-05; while fans were certainly upset and angry over a lost season, the "new" league came with promises of a faster and more exciting sport. The lockout was intended to be a "reset" on the NHL, with the shootout now a prominent part of the sport and the league working hard to improve and push offense to make the sport more exciting.
While the lost season was certainly hurtful, fans flocked to games upon the return of the NHL based upon these promises and based upon the promise that the lockout had fixed the problem, that ticket prices would lower and the league would be able to grow exponentially moving forward.
Instead, here we sit just seven years later. The owners are demanding more concessions from the players, the result of their own plan apparently backfiring as the league refuses to further operate with player revenue shares at 56 percent. They have locked out the union, bringing a halt to the season, with more and more players escaping to Europe and Russia to play hockey while those of us in North America sit and wait.
There are no promises of an improved game. No changes to the actual product, no promises of reduced ticket prices, no incentive for fans to look forward to the next season if and when the 2012-13 season is eventually canceled. What we have is a league that has enjoyed record revenues over the past seven years, revenues that have nearly doubled since the last lockout as the league was grown exponentially, that states there is no possible way for the league to continue to survive while paying the players the amount they have in the past.
It's true, there are some franchises out there that are likely bleeding money while struggling to reach the cap floor. A cap floor, incidentally, that has been driven upwards because of the record revenues -- and profits -- of eight or ten teams that have enjoyed incredible success under the CBA the owners forced upon the players in 2005. Those franchises, however, refuse to play along with better revenue sharing between franchises and instead, once again, look to the players to make up for the mistakes they have made.
This scenario has created a public relations battle that, until recently, the players were decisively winning. Most fans understood the principle of desiring for existing contracts to be honored, especially the massive contracts handed out this summer. Most fans understood that asking the players to take full responsibility for the poor business decisions of the owners was a faulty idea, although there is merit to the fundamental belief in business that an owner has the right to decide what to pay players.
Of course, attempting to go back on contracts already signed never looks good -- no matter what your fundamental beliefs may be.
But the players are culpable in this growing disaster as well, and far from the innocent victims they and their agents will attempt to have you believe. The NHLPA did not make a serious attempt at negotiations until just a month before the expiration of the last CBA and then came out of left field with a proposal so fundamentally different than that of the NHL's that for nearly two months now we've done nothing but write about how both sides are speaking "different languages."
You wonder if the delayed negotiations tactic was another feeble attempt at grabbing whatever leverage the players could hope to have, but it was very curious to see those same players willingly accept over $200 million worth of contracts in the 48 hours leading up to the Sept. 15 deadline. While both sides were dug down and heading towards another lockout, both the owners and players were more than happy to enter into lengthy and expensive contracts.
Perhaps the players believed it would be impossible for the league to not honor the full value of those contracts. Perhaps the owners felt the players had to know that rollbacks should be expected. Whatever the reason, it doesn't matter much now.
Last week, the NHL put forth a fairly reasonable offer that appeared to offer the framework for actual negotiations to take place, with the exception of the poisonous "Make Whole" provision that seems to now be at the heart of the clash between the NHL and the NHLPA.
The union responded with three barebones proposals of their own, which Donald Fehr admitted to "not having run the numbers." It's understandable that the league would stay how insulting such a tactic was, and now we sit a week later and both the NHL and NHLPA are not meeting with more games likely to be cancelled soon.
This, unequivocally, is a path to outright disaster for both the players and the league.
What's frustrating in all this mess is that it's clear that pride and ego are now getting in the way of actual progress, with the fans -- and so many out-of-work employees -- paying the price.
The players have a growing hatred and resentment towards Gary Bettman and each time one of them speaks to a reporter, it's clear just how personal they consider this battle. To them it's about the fundamental principle of standing up for what they believe to be the just and right thing, to battle for the value of contracts previously signed and to protect the league from travelling down this messy path once again in just six or seven years time.
And there seems to be little, if any, urgency to actually get a deal done. It's clear that the players believe their only leverage is to hold out as long as possible, to put the heat to the owners who apparently have a need for a full 82-game season, and to perhaps hold out to the point where a 60-game season (or something along those lines) is the only recourse left and the owners are forced to make concessions of their own.
There are some thoughts that the players are attempting to use the threat of a season of less than 82 games to force concessions from the league, as it is clear that a good chunks of moderate owners have pushed the NHL to attempt to get a deal done sooner than later. Instead, such a move could have the opposite effect as those owners in the middle decide that perhaps those super-rich owners at the top of the league were right after all and puts those few back in complete control over the direction of these negotiations.
Want to know what's more aggravating about this entire mess? That the league and the NHLPA, despite talking "different languages" with each proposal, are actually closer to a deal than I think most people realize.
Tyler Dellow does a great job of breaking down all of the offers and showing, in graphical form, how they have steadily come to the middle over the current negotiations with the differences between proposal falling from over a $1.8 billion gap (depending on growth rates) to just $300 to $400 million in differences with these latest proposals. So if the two sides are so much closer, why are we sitting here without any actual negotiations occurring and the league on the brink of cancelling another significant portion of the schedule?
Pride. Arrogance. Miscommunication, perhaps.
ESPN's Pierre LeBrun says that the NHL's refusal to meet stems from an email exchange between Bill Daly and Steve Fehr:
The genesis of Tuesday's clash between the two sides is an email exchange between NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly and NHLPA No. 2 man Steve Fehr in which the two men have vastly different interpretations of what was said. Fehr told players on their 5 p.m. ET conference call Tuesday that Daly's email informed the NHLPA that a conversation on the Make Whole provision would only happen if the players accepted the rest of the framework unconditionally. Daly, as you can guess, said that wasn't the case at all.
I will say what I've said for more than a week: I do believe the league is willing to concede in some areas of the player contract demands it made.
Read that again to make sure you understand what LeBrun is saying: Steve Fehr told the players that the league is taking a very hard stance regarding this latest proposal and an almost "take it or leave it" attitude, while Daly is saying publicly that this wasn't the case at all.
Perhaps this is why the NHL decided to make their latest offer so public, to avoid the spin that the Fehr brothers are giving the players regarding what the NHL is actually saying.
No matter what the actual reasons for this non-meeting to occur, it's clear that the NHL and the players are now playing a very, very dangerous game. Pride and anger have gotten in the way of logic and it is feared that the players have fostered such animosity towards the owners and the league that the relationship between teams and the players will never be what it once was. The league put an offer on the table in October that should have been put forth in August, as both sides attempted to battle for leverage.
Caught in the middle of all of this are the fans, loyal fans who stood by the league seven years ago during a lost season and who now view this lockout as a personal insult to their dedication and financial investment. While players that already make millions of dollars flock to play overseas, hundreds of other players sit at home and train. Not every player had a big nest egg built up and now find themselves without work; I doubt a player like Ryan Garbutt can find a lucrative job overseas.
There is also the other victims in this mess to consider, as hundreds -- if not thousands -- of regular, middle and lower class employees find themselves with reduced salaries or without a job. Teams have already started layoffs and concession and arena workers around the league miss valuable paychecks with each game that is not played.
And yet here we sit, with no meetings or negotiations scheduled. Whether this is because of pride, or simple negotiations tactics between the league and the union, does not matter. What does matter is that we are likely to go through another month without NHL hockey and for each day that passes, more and more fans jump ship. Unlike what Gary Bettman apparently believes, those fans are not going to return ready to blindly spend their money just because hockey is back.
If this season is lost, and that certainly appears to be a grand possibility, then the NHL will never be the same. I worry over the effect that such an event will have on the Dallas Stars, who had done so much to attempt to build for an exciting season in 2012-13 and yet will be starting all over again if the season is indeed cancelled.
I also worry about what that does to the most hardcore fans, fans like myself and those that frequent this website. I feel increasingly apathetic towards both sides, the players and the owners, as it becomes clear that despite the movement toward the middle they have created a path to disaster that appears to be unavoidable with each passing day.
Will I be willing to devote so much of my time and energy to this sport and this league if they don't have the respect for the fans to put egos aside and find a middle ground in this mess? This isn't the NFL; this is a league that desperately needs it's most hardcore fans to stand behind them and as this lockout continues -- those numbers will dwindle.
Without those fans, ones like myself and everyone here, this league will die. Unfortunately, I cannot promise I will still be here if another season is lost.