No deal yet for NHL, just theatrics

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NHL commissioner Gary Bettman (right) and deputy commissioner Bill Daly and speak to reporters on Thursday. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

NEW YORK - Mere blocks from Broadway and the most famous stages in the world, hockey offered two riveting, Tony Award-deserving performances on Thursday night - separated by an intermission just long enough to resurface the ice.

First up was NHL players association executive director Donald Fehr, who used Jedi-like mind games to interrupt press conferences with players, re-approach the podium and erase all the optimism he spun 5 minutes earlier. After a voicemail from the NHL left on the phone of his brother Steve, his special counsel, Fehr said suddenly these 82-day labor negotiations went from "very close if not on top of one another" to "this looks like it's not going to be resolved in the immediate future."

After watching Fehr live on TV from his offices up the street, commissioner Gary Bettman marched down Sixth Avenue to respond.

Bettman may have delivered the most animated, fiery message of his 19-year reign of the league, immediately offering that the NHL had pulled every bit of its offer off the table. He wagged his finger, voiced his disappointment and said the possibility of losing a second season in 8 years "absolutely torments" him.

It was thrilling, even unprecedented theater. Both leaders were so clearly frustrated, with millions of people watching live around the world - especially in Canada.

But it was nothing more than a show - even if one with a bizarre script.

Clearly, there is a thought lingering that the NHL's season is now in peril, after such vicious tongue-lashings from both sides. The NHLPA claims that it has "done far and away the lion's share of the giving." The NHL is basically claiming that Fehr is not interested in making a deal.

Thursday undoubtedly did not help. No one, however, is willing to suggest that we are at the point in this process that a season has been lost. The NHL is expected to cancel more games on Friday, likely up until just before the New Year, which would push the total above 500 regular-season games.

If you want perspective on the lockout, step back from Thursday's circus and take a deep breath. It's what each side will do on Friday, since they won't be meeting.

Ignore the optics, focus on the facts.

Ignore the three newly involved owners in the process releasing their own statements through the league, saying they are "disappointed" and Donald Fehr is "disillusioned." Ignore the four players hanging in the back of a cramped room to watch Bettman's press conference.

Ignore the lies, like Bettman saying 48 games is as few as the league will play and then following it by saying he doesn't know what start date compromises the integrity of the game. Ignore the threat that the NHL supposedly made to players, saying Fehr's continued involvement could be a "deal-breaker." Ignore the suggestion that the Fehr brothers magically missed a call from the league during their initial positive spin to the media.

The disappointment, frustration and emotion evident is all real - including the comments from owners like Ron Burkle, who has never made a public comment as co-owner of the Penguins, and from players involved like Sidney Crosby. But the progress made this week also is real.

For the first time, Bettman and Fehr officially announced that they had agreed on the economic principals of the deal. The owners chipped in on make-whole proposals, pushing it to $300 million to try to honor players' signed deals. The players are funding their own pension plan - something they made an issue of out of the blue this week, then turtled on.

They agree on a host of contracting issues, including arbitration rights, free agency and entry-level setup.

Both sides even agree on the three key things they disagree on: the length of the actual new CBA, the limit of years on new player contracts, and the structure of contracts with regard to variance in salary among years for the benefit of a salary-cap hit.

The good news is that there is wiggle room from both sides.

Owners want a 10-year CBA. Players countered 8 years and an opt-out clause after 6.

Owners want a 5-year limit on new player contracts. Players countered with an 8-year limit.

Owners want a 5 percent limit on salary change year-to-year in a deal. Players countered with a 25 percent variance limit from the first year to the last year.

Think about it logically: Are players and owners both willing to let a $3.3 billion industry flounder because of three things that seemingly impact so few people? Even with this big egos involved, no one is that crazy.

For players, they should want the longest CBA deal possible. For one, it means labor peace and the possibility that a rookie next year may enjoy a prosperous career without the threat of a lockout. Plus, they ultimately made out like such bandits in the last CBA that owners were willing to lock them out to change it. Their average salary rose from $1.7 million to $2.4 million.

Approximately 48 players (out of 700) have a deal longer than 6 years. That's just 6 percent of the membership. With deals capped at 5 years, there really can't be that much variance anyway.

Bettman said the entire economic offer, though, was a "package," meaning it depended on a "yes" to their contractual demands. He also said their entire offer was off the table.

Bettman can pull any offer off the table he desires. In fact, he might be instructed to, especially if those four moderate owners involved were indeed angered at the players' response to their good-faith offers. Still, the players don't even believe that statement.

"I don't know that in a negotiation anything is ever really off the table," player Chris Campoli said. "A door is never really completely closed. They need us as much as we need them."

 


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