Frank Seravalli: Slushy outlook on NHL labor talks

083012-gary-bettman-400
The NHL is getting closer to having its second lockout in the last seven years. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press/AP)

NEW YORK - NHL commissioner Gary Bettman promised that the league's owners made a "meaningful" and "significant" reach across the bargaining table with their latest offer on Tuesday, which represents a $460 million reduction in player concessions from their initial proposal on July 13.

After a long night to look over the offer, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr would not say on Wednesday if the two sides are any closer to avoiding hockey's second lockout in 7 years.

For hockey fans hoping training camps will open in 3 weeks, it's starting to get scary. The sides cannot formally agree on how the NHL's record $3.3 billion revenue will be divided between players and owners, and they also disagree on what constitutes Hockey Related Revenue and how the owners will share it amongst themselves.

Fehr said the NHLPA would hopefully make a counterproposal Thursday in Manhattan, with only 17 days left under the current collective bargaining agreement.

"Obviously, there was some movement in there," Fehr said after a 90-minute meeting with Bettman at NHL headquarters. "I'm not going to suggest that there isn't. If the players wanted to increase [their share of revenue] by the same amount that [the NHL] reduced it, that would be 71 percent. If [the players] took it down to 68 percent, how would you characterize it? I don't know."

From the players' perspective, it actually may be worse than that.

On July 13, the NHL proposed a players' share reduction from 57 percent of HRR to a reported 46 percent. That number was actually closer to 43 percent, since it came with a change in the definition of what exactly constitutes HRR. The league offered a smaller percentage of a smaller pie.

On Wednesday, Bettman admitted the NHL upped its offer back to 46 percent. However, the NHL accomplished that simply by using the original definition of the HRR pie - not by changing any real revenue stance.

"The fact of the matter is, the players have been getting 57 percent and we were getting 43 percent - and we're paying all the expenses of running the game, running the league and running the clubs," Bettman said. "And looking at at least two other sports, the other two that have cap systems, the players in each of those leagues recognize that in this economic environment the appropriateness of reducing their share. Reducing their share isn't extraordinary.

"We made a deal [in 2005], we made some definitions, and we think there needs to be some adjustments."

Still, that doesn't solve how the owners will share the revenue, which the NHLPA says is the whole reason some franchises are struggling. Franchises want profitability - and the fact of the matter is that not every franchise is profitable.

Up until Wednesday night, Fehr said the NHLPA still had not received current financial information from how each team fared revenue-wise last season.

"We tend to look at them club-by-club rather than overall aggregating the entire league," Fehr said. "Structure really matters [in revenue sharing]. From our side, we want to know what the teams that are on the high end of the revenue scale are going to be willing to make without the reductions of player salaries."

Under this new proposal from the league, the salary cap would be reduced from the current $70.2 million to $58 million for next season. The Flyers are one of 16 teams currently over the $58 million mark. Rather than a 24 percent salary rollback off the top, the NHL would like to increase player escrow percentages, in addition to contract buyout periods and a possible amnesty clause.

Last year, 8.5 percent of player salaries were taken out of each paycheck to ensure a proper revenue split. An NHLPA spokesman said the current estimate is that the owners will keep a half-percent of that and return the other 8 percent.

For Fehr and the players, that doesn't fly. Bettman, on the other hand, says an increase in escrow take is better than a 24 percent rollback since it can change year-to-year.

"It amounts to the same thing," Fehr said. "Should the player not get the dollar value that is on his contract because there is a rollback, which is simply a name for crossing out one number and writing in another, or whether he doesn't get an amount because there is escrow, he still doesn't get it."

Yes, the two sides are still talking turkey. They're finally comparing apples to apples - and semantics are seemingly out of the way. But there has been no real movement on the core numbers. They haven't even discussed other important variables, like contract restrictions or how to transition down the team salary-cap numbers.

"How we do [salary-cap] transition is not something I'm concerned about right now," Bettman said. "Once we get close enough to make a deal, that will be a discussion I'll be delighted to have."

With some players already packing their bags for Europe, it's unsettling that the conversation has not yet been had. The NHLPA's important counter, expected by Friday, will show just how close or far apart these two adversaries stand.

 

Slap shots

The NHLPA's brain trust on Wednesday included 11 players, but no Flyers. Nine of them were American and NCAA educated. Four of those players went to Ivy League schools . . . Back in Voorhees, Scott Hartnell told reporters that if there is a lockout, he would be interested in playing in Europe to stay in shape. He owns 5 percent of Finnish Elite League franchise KalPa. Teammates Kimmo Timonen and Danny Briere both said they would likely wait out the lockout since they have kids in school in the Philadelphia area.

 


Contact Frank Seravalli at seravaf@phillynews.com or on Twitter @DNFlyers. Read his blog at www.philly.com/frequentflyers.