Wednesday was, by far, the most interesting, frustrating and intriguing day of negotiations we've had yet since the NHL lockout began back on Sept. 15. The two sides once again met well into the early hours of the morning, this time sitting down after what was described as a productive NHL Board of Governor's meeting that had some owners practically glowing as they walked past the media contingent.
What was very clear on Wednesday evening, as those present reported on the negotiations as if watching a sporting event, that what we were seeing were actual negotiations. Not "talks," not "discussions," but the hard-nosed back and forth that happens when two sides sit down and finally start hammering out a deal. It's clear that a lot of progress was made in some very important areas but stumbling blocks remain, and it will depend on just how well the NHL and NHLPA can continue to work together to determine whether a deal can quickly be reached.
And at this point, I do believe that a deal is on the horizon. I believe that hockey will be played this season, and will likely begin right around Christmas (and could begin on Christmas Day). The two sides have come too far this week, have worked too hard to get past emotions and differences, for all of this to come crashing down around them.
Except it almost did.
There were numerous reports that discussions between the owners and the players once again became heated, to the point where the owners almost walked away from negotiations and the players apparently came close to pulling their concessions off the table. All of the positive vibes from earlier in the day had disappeared and there was talk of things becoming intense and heated in the room; Damien Cox of the Toronto Star has some details:
"Let's leave," said Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, turning to NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly.
"It's up to you," replied Daly.
At that point during the talks between the NHL and NHL Players' Association on Wednesday, a day that began as a continuation of the momentum generated on Tuesday, both sides were at the precipice, and the 2012-13 season was in jeopardy. Earlier, Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller had angrily vented when the owners said they were disappointed with the players' responses to an earlier offer and threatened to pull everything off the table.
Two weeks ago, or last week, this sort of occurrence would have meant that the two sides indeed would have walked away. We would have been told about intense arguments and the media would have become, once again, the angry mouthpiece for both the players and owners in what had become a nasty PR war that no one cared about. So what was the difference between then and now?
It's clear that a few things have happened to change the tone of the talks. The first of which is that Gary Bettman's idea, of the players and owners meeting without himself and Donald Fehr, is one that actually worked. Changing who was in the room, most notably putting several "moderate owners" across the table from players also concerned with getting the game back on the ice, certainly took away some of the emotion and ego that had stalled things before.
Several of the players expressed this sentiment to Michael Russo of the Star Tribune:
"It's been so close all along that we just needed guys to sit down in a room and be real honest about it," said Wild veteran Matt Cullen. "The guys that care about the game have finally found their way into the room on both sides. We have some guys that are maybe thinking about the game more than the bottom line for just a second here."
"If both sides take a small step toward each other, you're really close, you're right there," Cullen said. "You get to this point, it seems ridiculous that you'd ever walk away from it now."
"You get the sense there's a little more urgency from both sides, and it's good to see," Kyle Brodziak said. "I mean, finally. Finally there's a little bit of hope ... . It makes these scrimmages a lot easier to get ready for what possibly could be the real thing."
Dallas Stars defenseman and NHLPA representative Alex Goligoski also shared some of his thoughts, before the intense discussions wore on into the night:
"It is positive that some progress was made, but until you're in the final stages of this thing and things are agreed on by both sides, it's almost foolish to be too optimistic," Goligoski said. "As a player, it's just foolish to do that to yourself. The way things go, there's good days and bad days. [Tuesday] seemed to be a good day. Hopefully it's not followed by a bad one."
There is also the fact that the owners are finally starting to feel the pressure of getting a season underway, and getting that happening very soon. It seems that what has happened is that the "hardline" owners have likely been out-voiced by those in the NHL that need and desire for hockey to happen this year, that they aren't willing to sacrifice the season just to force even more concessions upon the players.
That pressure has now been pressed upon the players, with the league obviously frustrated that the players are being deliberate and "dragging their feet a bit" in order to make certain they aren't going to get locked into a deal that is worse than they'd desire. That frustration is what led to the near-blowup between Jacobs and Miller and is why several members of the media started to leak the fact that things had taken a turn for the worse in the early evening.
The good news is that they worked through it and found a way to continue working together.
On Thursday, Donald Fehr and Gary Bettman are expected to re-enter the negotiating room. The two have been very, very involved in the process this week but have stayed away from the actual back-and-forth. There is concern that their presence could grind things to a halt once more but one thing should be very clear: a deal was never going to get done without Fehr and Bettman squaring off a final time.
The league and the NHLPA have built what appears to be the framework for a deal but as they say, the devil is in the details. Here is what we know has been ironed out and what is supposedly on the table.
- A 10-year CBA with an opt-out clause after eight years.
- A five year term limit on all new contracts; teams would be able to sign their own players for seven years.
- $300 million in "make whole," with $50 million of that going toward pensions.
- A 5% year-to-year variance limit on all new contracts.
- Free agency and arbitrations rules would stay the same (27 years old or 4 years pro).
- The 50-50 split between players and owners that would reach 50% share by year three or four of the deal.
Now, there are a few issues here that the NHLPA is still having major issues with, while the owners have said that they cannot move much more on where things currently stand. Perhaps the biggest sticking point will be the player contract term limits, something the players have been steadfastly fighting this entire process, even though the NBA employs a very similar system (and it's more restrictive at 5/4).
There is also the matter of the term limit. A 10-year term would mean the chance of an entire decade of labor peace. It would signal a sign of good faith to the fans, to corporate sponsors and partners and if the league does grow like both sides expect it to, both the NHL and NHLPA will be enjoying immense financial success in the latter years of that deal.
Something will have to give and it's likely that these two issues will be the major point of contention today. If the NHL is intent on a 10-year deal -- which would ease the burden of the "make whole" across a longer amount of time -- then some concessions will have to be made. Will that come in the form of player contract limits, something the league has said they steadfastly refuse to budge on?
It would be a shame for the players to fall on their sword over an issue that affects a very, very small amount of players in the league. Less than 80 players are signed to contracts of five years or longer, while only 42 are signed to contracts seven years or more. And while the players may be concerned with getting locked into a "bad deal," they have to realize that a long-term deal is good for the league as a whole -- and that includes them.
We've come so close. The Board of Governors discussed just what a shortened season would look like and when it would start. But things are far from finished and talks could fall apart at any time, especially as tensions rise even more with Fehr back in the room and the finit details being worked on. There is caution on the win, but also hope.
We're close to seeing NHL hockey again.