SUN Hockey Pool

NHL CBA negotiations set to be front page news

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. (MIKE BLAKE/Reuters file photo)

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. (MIKE BLAKE/Reuters file photo)

BRUCE GARRIOCH, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:34 PM ET

The torch at the Olympic Games will be extinguished Sunday night in London.

Then, all eyes in Canada will tune into the waiting game.

While six weeks of talks between the NHL and Players’ Association for a new collective bargaining agreement have largely gone unnoticed with all the Olympic buzz, the landscape is about to change dramatically.

With the chase for gold, silver and bronze ending, attention in this country will turn to whether NHL commissioner Gary Bettman can hammer out a deal with NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr or whether we’re in for a long, cold winter.

Bettman fired the first salvo Thursday when he indicated following a bargaining session the players will be locked out if there isn’t a new CBA in place when the current deal expires Sept. 15.

A straw poll of some league executives last week indicated there isn’t optimism for a deal soon. Many are making plans for a shortened season that likely won’t begin until January.

“We obviously have a wide bridge to gap on a whole host of issues,” Bettman said after the bargaining session.

And, so it begins.

Just seven years after a lockout cost the league and its fans the 2004-05 season and a “did not play” was engraved on the Stanley Cup, it appears Bettman and NHL owners are intent to lock players out once the agreement expires.

In 1994-95, they allowed the players to come to camp during negotiations with former union head Bob Goodenow before shutting the doors. A shortened 48-game schedule was played starting in January,

After a month of cordial talks this time around, the NHL is back to playing hardball. The CBA Bettman designed with NHL owners in 2005 — that included a 24% rollback on existing contracts and a salary cap — is no longer good enough.

In 2004-05, Bettman touted the (Arthur) Levitt Report — a paper prepared by the former head of the SEC. The report stated player salaries constituted 73% of the revenues and there had to changes.

Under the old system, Bettman told anybody who would listen it was impossible for teams to survive and prosper. He said “cost certainty” had to be brought in with a salary cap with players receiving a fixed percentage of revenues.

Bettman was able to cut player costs to 57% of revenues. In exchange, he handed over the rights to unrestricted free agency after seven years. It has looked like the deal is working for both sides.

Bettman has always heaped praise on the NHL’s growth and the indications are revenues rose more than 50% during this agreement. The salary cap started out at $39 million in 2005-06 and is scheduled to be $70.2 million in 2012-13.

That’s why it was surprising Bettman’s first offer to the players tried to cut deep.

Under the proposal, the players’ share of revenue would fall to 43% (based on a new definition of hockey related revenues), there would be an elimination of arbitration, UFA status would come after 10 years and all contracts would have five-year limits.

So, why did the NHL go for the jugular?

The current agreement succeeded in levelling the playing field and brought some semblance of parity. But the financial gulf between the big-market and small-market teams widened. This was mainly because NHL teams shared less than 6% of revenue. By contrast, NFL clubs share more than 60%.

In the last seven years, the NHL has increased its revenues by more than $3.2 billion.

“We know what they didn’t do, they didn’t share it between the big- and small-market teams,” said a league insider Saturday. “A big percentage went into the pockets of the big-market teams who are now refusing increased revenue sharing as a means to address the disparity.

“This is not a players’ issue anymore. This is a battle between the owners and it’s time for them to settle it once and for all between themselves.”

Well, what’s next?

“Many people think a 50/50 split in revenue between the owners and players is a fair resolution,” added the insider. “That means players should accept a 7% reduction in their share annually. Over six years, that’s over $1 billion. Why? The players accepted a salary cap and 24% rollback last time.

“Since then, NHL revenues are booming. Why should players give back again? What’s the justification for this?”

The players will show their cards Tuesday when they make a counter-proposal during negotiations in Toronto. Then, we’ll know just how far the two sides have to go before a resolution can be reached and the attention can return to the ice.

I can hear the refrain from hockey fans: Here we go again.

NEGOTIATIONS 101

WHAT: The CBA between the NHL and NHLPA expires Sept. 15. If there’s no agreement in place, commissioner Gary Bettman said the players will be locked out. NHLPA head Donald Fehr has said the players want to keep working.

QUOTE: “Time is getting short and the owners are not prepared to operate under this collective bargaining agreement for another season, so we need to get to making a deal and doing it soon,” Bettman said.

ALL A-TWITTER: Players have taken to social media to express their feelings and they aren’t happy:

Logan Couture (San Jose): “Tough hearing the word lockout. Players just want what’s fair.”

Joffrey Lupul (Toronto): “The word lockout should be mentioned on Sept 15 and then only. Plenty of time for a solution. Seems like Gary is eager for the “hat-trick.”

Henrik Lundqvist (Rangers): “The NHL says they won’t play past Sept 15 under current deal. Apparently they don’t like the deal they designed.”

bruce.garrioch@sunmedia.ca

Twitter: @sungarrioch


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