Gary Bettman scores points but NHLPA cautious

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has made a new offer to the NHLPA on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012....

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has made a new offer to the NHLPA on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012. (Veronica Henri/QMI Agency)

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:28 AM ET

TORONTO - Gary Bettman tried enticing the players across the great divide to the labour table with the lure of a full schedule that would start Nov. 2.

But while many fans and those with hockey-dependent livelihoods were quick to jump for joy, the players union hasn't quite lowered its drawbridge.

In a surprising reversal of position after weeks of blather on both sides, NHL commissioner Bettman on Tuesday delivered a new proposal to union executive director Donald Fehr at his Toronto office, predicated on the union playing all 82 regular-season games and full playoffs. Bettman made the six-year plan sweet-sounding for the layman, a 50-50 split of hockey-related revenue "across the board." HRR has been the thorniest issue during the month-long lockout.

"We very much want to preserve a full season and in that light (Tuesday's offer) is our best shot," Bettman said after a one-hour meeting with his deputy, Bill Daly, and Donald and Steve Fehr.

"This offer is contingent upon an 82-game season ... it's 50-50 across the board.

"We have been extremely disappointed, and that's an understatement, that we have been unable to get these negotiations on the essential elements (HRR) moving forward. We have a number of significant elements we believe can and should serve as the basis of a deal."

Bettman indicated he was ready to come back to Fehr's office Wednesday or continue discussions in New York City, while the union boss took Tuesday to study the offer and discuss it in an evening conference call with players on his negotiating committee.

Amid talk of a week-long training camp starting about Oct. 25 and one extra game being added every five weeks to make up for those lost since Oct. 11, the league came away sounding conciliatory and scoring points with fans.

But in the union's eyes this is not such a magnanimous gesture, as much as the league starting to soften its hard-line opening stance on HRR. In the summer the league demanded the players take as little as 43% -- 14% less -- than the previous deal and inched back from that. The players are reluctant to surrender their 57% pot of a growing $3.3-billion US annual industry, after the owners already had brought in a salary cap and 24% salary rollback in the previous collective bargaining agreement.

Fehr opened his comments by saying his side also wished to play 82 games this season but that the league had given him a lot to chew on the next day or so.

"We haven't been able to run any numbers yet." he said before the players' conference call. "It (the scope of the offer) is not short. There are still explanatory documents we have to wade through. We have to make sure we read it completely and understand what it means in connection to the existing NHL proposals and what we put on the table.

"But our hope is after we review this, there will be a feeling that this is a proposal from which we can try to reach a conclusion. I'd like to believe this is an excellent starting point, but I'm not commenting on the specifics."

Those items began leaking out in the course of Tuesday. The league would increase its contribution to revenue sharing by $50 million to nearly $200 million, answering the union's call for rich teams to help the financially strapped clubs at their own expense, not the players'. Draconian measures to get rid of salary arbitration have been tempered in this offer, but the league is still pushing for eight years or age 28 before unrestricted free agency, a year later than the old deal.

The league continues to insist that long-term contracts are held to five years, an unpopular love by players. As for the tricky topic of escrow -- the money the league would hold back from salaries until the 50-50 is calculated -- the players could overcome any increase if league coffers continue to grow.

"We believe we addressed the concern players have about what happens to their salaries as a result of reducing the revenues of 57% to 50%," Bettman said. "We believe this was a fair offer on a long-term deal and one we hope gets a positive reaction to so can drop the puck on Nov. 2.

"We have nine or 10 days to put this to bed, signed sealed and delivered, in order for this offer to be effective. We hope this effort we've undertaken will be successful, because we know how difficult this has been for everybody associated with the game, particularly our fans."

Donald Fehr admitted he didn't see this offer coming on Tuesday morning when Bettman and Daly arrived for what was supposed to be exploratory talks. The league had been badgering the union to make the next significant move after more than a month of posturing by both sides.

"If we didn't put an offer on the table (today) we think is fair, then probably it wasn't going to happen for a while," Bettman said.

There is no guarantee of a quick settlement based on a resumption of serious talks, but the sides had met about non-economic matters in New York the past few weeks. It's possible the schedule does get shaved by five to 10 games, but many early season games in some U.S. markets are sparsely attended anyway and the Winter Classic showcase on New Year's Day would be preserved.

Asked what he would do if the union rejects Tuesday's offer outright, Bettman said "I don't even want to go there."

A LOOK A THE DEAL

A look at highlights of the NHL's latest proposal, a six-year offer presented Tuesday to the Players Association:

A 50-50 split of revenues

This is a number that sounds fair, but the issue has been what constitutes hockey-related revenue (HRR). That still has to be thrashed out in the next seven-to 10-days, though this certainly makes for easier division. The players have been clinging to 57% of HRR from the last deal the owners imposed, but the monster contracts of late -- notably those of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in Minnesota -- have made the owners' position vulnerable.

Salary cap

Would be allowed to remain at its $70.2 million (U.S.) level for the coming season as teams have already committed to their contracts. Some can even exceed it. But to reach 50-50, clubs are almost surely looking at a drop of around $5 million per team in 2013-14 and players will balk. Seven players, topped by Nashville defenceman Shea Weber and New York Rangers' Brad Richards, make $10 million or more. Capgeek.com, the NHL salary website, lists 16 teams with more than $60 million on the books already.

Revenue sharing

The league would add an estimated $50-million to bail out weaker clubs, bringing the total to $200 million. The league wanted the players to pick up some or all of this tab through salary rollbacks, and the players responded with what they thought was a sound plan for the top money-making clubs to help out struggling outfits such as the league-owned Phoenix Coyotes.

Long-term contracts capped at five years

Players will not be in favour of this, after all the big contracts last season and the wish of some members to set themselves up for retirement in a certain city. But the league has adhered very tightly to this one -- and it might just save some owners and general managers from themselves.

Free Agency at age 28 or eight years of service

That's a year older than the current deal. It used to be aged 31 and was once 28 way back in 2007. Likely not going to be a deal-killer, unless you're a 27-year-old who was counting down the days until July 1, 2013.

Entry-level contracts

Would be reduced from a maximum of three years to two. This was originally a concession to the owners in an earlier CBA to prevent young guns from breaking the bank before proving themselves. The rookies will be happy they can get a bigger pay day sooner.

Season starting Nov. 2?

That's the league's deadline to get an 82-game season in and a Stanley Cup decided before the end of June. That's a tight timetable to settle outstanding issues and get players back from Europe and their other off-season bases. One game would be added every five weeks to make up for the postponed contests and there's a chance the regular season goes a bit later into April. But few would lose sleep if the league plays just 70 and change.

NHL contracts in AHL

The league has been pressing for one-way deals that get buried on the farm, such as New York's Wade Redden, to be subtracted from their HRR ledger.


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