What happens next in the dispute could depend on the dynamic between NHL Players’ Association leader Donald Fehr and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (above).
Photograph by: Dave Sandford, Getty Images
MONTREAL - In the mad, mad, mad, mad world of the National Hockey League, this is what now passes for sanity, as hockey fans from coast to coast wait to see whether there will be a season:
A few days after the details of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s proposal for drastic cuts to player salaries (delivered to the players’ union, with appropriate theatre, on Friday the 13th) the Philadelphia Flyers made an offer to defenceman Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators, a restricted free agent: 14 years, $110 million U.S., an average annual salary of $7.86 million from the 2012-2013 season through 2025-2026, when Weber, if he’s still playing, will be 40 years old.
The Philadelphia offer put the Nashville team in a very difficult position. Because Weber was a “restricted” free agent in terms of the basic agreement with the National Hockey League Players’ Association, the Predators would receive a compensatory package of draft picks if they let Weber go. But Nashville had already lost its other star defenceman, Ryan Suter, who went to the Minnesota Wild for a mere $98 million over 13 years, the same amount Minnesota will pay its other free-agent acquisition, forward Zach Parise, who jumped from the New Jersey Devils.
With their standing in their own market already shaky, the Predators decided this week that the team had no choice. Tuesday afternoon, Nashville announced that it would match the Philadelphia offer. Weber, the Predators captain, will be staying in Nashville, albeit for a king’s ransom.
The cash-poor Predators, one of the small-market American franchises Bettman claims he has to protect through a new agreement with the NHLPA, will be on the hook for $68 million in signing bonuses through the first six years of the contract – including a $13-million bonus before the coming season, which Nashville will have to pay even if the players are locked out and the season does not begin.
Rather than attempting to gouge the players, then, it would seem that Bettman’s first task would be to urge some form of sanity on the 30 owners who are largely responsible for this madness, to box a few of the owners around the ears, urge them to use a little reason in awarding contracts and force a more equitable revenue-sharing plan among the teams rather than to shut down all or part of another season – but the wealthier teams represent a significant roadblock to any such arrangement.
With the current collective bargaining agreement set to expire Sept. 15, the most likely scenario appears to be a lockout, which would cost the NHL, its players and its helpless fans anything from a few weeks to another entire season of hockey.
It is against this background that negotiators for the league and the NHLPA met in Toronto this week. On the table (if media reports are accurate) are Bettman’s proposals, which hockey columnist Larry Brooks of the New York Post described as a “declaration of war” on the union: The players share is to drop from 57 per cent to 46 per cent of overall league revenue (actually 43 per cent, given the changes in the way NHL revenue is defined), players would have to wait 10 years rather than the current seven to become unrestricted free agents, the poorer teams will no longer have to meet a minimal salary-cap “floor,” entry-level rookie contracts would be for five years rather than the current three and players will no longer be entitled to salary arbitration.
And the maximum term for any contract would be five years, the most sensible of Bettman’s proposals – but nine years short of the term just granted to Weber.
On the surface, it seems to be little more than a blatant money grab, especially after Bettman’s boast that league revenues increased to $3.3 billion this past season, up from $2.2 billion over the seven seasons since the last lockout. At the very least, the league’s offer constitutes an attempt to roll the status quo back a couple of decades. And no one can doubt his determination: We are only eight years removed from the beginning of the lockout that cost the league and its players the entire 2004-2005 season.
Whether Bettman gets away with it depends largely on the leadership of the NHLPA itself. The union has a new executive director in Donald Fehr, former head of the Major League Baseball Players Association, one of the foremost figures in the frequently contentious battles between billionaire owners and millionaire players over how to carve up an increasingly lucrative pie.
Fehr took over in late December 2010. From the beginning, he has worked hard to build a consensus among the players – support he will need if the lockout goes deep into the winter and players with mortgages to pay on their newly acquired mansions see their careers melting away and begin to get restive, and worried about their long-term futures. But Fehr is an able, experienced executive, a good listener who impresses his constituency in face-to-face meetings throughout the league.
Fehr is not a popular figure in Montreal because of his role in the 1994 baseball strike that cost the Expos their shot at a World Series title but he is universally respected and he is one of the reasons that baseball, among all the four premier North American sports leagues, is now the only one that enjoys labour peace.
How this plays out will depend, to some degree, on the dynamic between Fehr and Bettman. Last time around, the personal enmity between Bettman and former NHLPA Bob Goodenow seemed to add fuel to the fire – and the acrimonious negotiations would eventually cost Goodenow his job.
The two sides are now like 19th-century armies arraying themselves for battle: Fehr and Bettman are the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon Bonaparte deploying their troops before Waterloo, surveying one another through spyglasses, politely refraining from untoward violence until the infantry squares have been formed and the cavalry aligned for the initial charge.
The low-key, amiable Fehr (who so far has been offering somewhat more information on the talks than Bettman) described the talks going on in Toronto this past week as “clearing the underbrush.” The union has asked for supplementary financial information in support of Bettman’s position, the NHL is gathering the information, and the NHLPA has promised to table its own proposal once the information is in hand.
On Thursday, Bettman and the league provided information to fill in the gaps in the original proposal and the two sides held friendly discussions on non-monetary issues. Former Canadiens defenceman Mathieu Schneider, now a special assistant to Fehr, was upbeat after Thursday’s session.
Schneider made it clear that Fehr is working to keep the players more involved in the process than they were during the negotiations that led to the lockout in 2004-2005.
“We’ve had guys that are very interested in the retirement benefits. We’ve had guys that are real interested in supplemental discipline … (and) the core economics of the game,” Schneider said. “So I wouldn’t say that one thing is specific to all players. We have a wide range of players and a wide range of interests.”
Few doubt there will be a battle once the two sides get down to the nitty-gritty economic issues. The line Bettman has already drawn in the sand, terms to which no sane union boss could agree, pretty much guarantees a conflict and a delayed start to the season. The only sure bet is that the NHL will resume play some day: The question is when, and under what terms.
Much depends on Fehr and the approach he takes to negotiations. On the whole, despite the gains they have made since the first attempt to form a union in 1957, NHL players have not been well-served by their leaders and the history of labour battles in the league has been noteworthy primarily for the bitterness and tenacity with which team owners have attempted to keep the players in thrall. Obviously, those bonds have long since been broken – Shea Weber could tell you a thing or two about that – but at least some of the bitterness remains.
If there is a face for the NHLPA, it’s the battered mug of Ted Lindsay, the legendary tough guy of the Detroit Red Wings whose lonely struggle to form a players’ union during the 1950s was as heroic as his battles with Canadiens enforcer John Ferguson.
Lindsay’s fight began at a time when the league’s superstars earned $25,000 a year, when ordinary players took off-season jobs to make ends meet, when a star of the magnitude of Rocket Richard could find himself selling fishing line and home heating oil to pay the bills when his career was done.
The league of the Original Six was controlled by a handful of millionaires who held absolute power. Players were chattels, who played where they were told, when they were told, for salaries determined by the owners. Beginning in 1957, Lindsay and star Montreal defenceman Doug Harvey led a handful of players determined to form what they called an “association,” because they thought the word “union” might be too strong.
For their efforts, Lindsay was traded from Detroit to Chicago and Harvey from the Canadiens to the New York Rangers. The owners, led by Conn Smythe, fought dirty. Union certification votes failed, Lindsay was defeated and it would be another decade before the union took hold under Alan Eagleson.
Eagleson, who gained a foothold by acting as Bobby Orr’s agent, was able to form the NHLPA in 1967. The flamboyant, fast-talking Eagleson, never one to worry about conflict of interest, was able to carry on as an agent while running the union. Within 10 years he was representing a dozen members of the Toronto Maple Leafs and in head-to-head conflict with Toronto owner Harold Ballard.
Ironically, the union’s first boss was also its worst, by far: Eagleson ruled the NHLPA for the benefit of Eagleson, compiling a record of misdeeds that would end with Eagleson in prison and the NHLPA in disarray.
Eagleson would become the only union official elected to a major sports Hall of Fame (an honour still denied to the far more deserving Marvin Miller in baseball) and he would receive the Order of Canada before it all began to fall apart. Now he is a disbarred lawyer and a convicted felon in both the U.S. and Canada – but Eagleson’s 25-year reign as head of the NHLPA left an unfortunate legacy with the players, who had paid too little attention while Eagleson ran the union for his own ends.
From placing too much trust in Eagleson, the players veered in the other direction, refusing to place sufficient trust in his successors. When Bob Goodenow took over from Eagleson in 1991, he worked long and hard to restore the players’ faith in their union. Goodenow led the NHLPA during the 1994 lockout that resulted in the strike-shortened, 48-game 1995 season and again during the knock-down, drag-out battle 10 years later that made the NHL the only major sports league to lose an entire season.
Two weeks after signing the new collective bargaining agreement that ended the lockout on July 13, 2005, Goodenow was forced out, challenged from within by the players and by NHLPA senior director Ted Saskin, who was able to orchestrate Goodenow’s ouster and his own accession to the post of executive director.
It was a singularly bad choice. During the Turin Olympics in 2006, one hockey journalist boasted that Saskin had taken him out for a 400-euro lunch. Saskin and union executive Ken Kim had their contracts terminated the following year, following allegations that they were spying on players’ email accounts.
The next executive director, Paul V. Kelly, was undermined by warring player cliques and lasted less than two years on the job before he, too, was fired in August 2009. That began the long search for a boss capable of leading the NHLPA in what was sure to be another head-to-head battle with Bettman.
This time, the NHLPA took its time and found the right man. Fehr’s approach to date has been cautious and inclusive. He has had a large group of players with him at the negotiations in New York and Toronto and he has taken great pains to act according to the players’ wishes, understanding that while Bettman has to ride herd on only 30 owners, he has to keep some 700 players unified to have any chance at all in negotiations.
If there is a bright side in all this, it’s the existence this time of a significant network television contract, the league’s deal with NBC. There are two drop-dead dates when the network is going to want its television properties on the air: The first is Black Friday on Nov. 23, the day after American Thanksgiving.
The second and more significant date is New Year’s Day, when the biggest of all Winter Classics is scheduled for the Big House in Ann Arbor, home of the Michigan Wolverines football team. The Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs are expected to draw 115,000 fans for an event that is both a rotten hockey game and a spectacular television attraction.
Donald Fehr, in other words, has a lot of ammunition this time around, from the league’s much-ballyhooed $3.3 billion in revenues to Bettman’s need to get the league up and running in time for the Winter Classic. But he can’t possibly settle for anything less than a 50/50 revenue split with the league, something along the lines of the recent agreements concluded by the NBA and the NFL.
Losing an entire season while going for more does not make sense – but Bettman has shown in the past that he can stick to an untenable position for years out of sheer stubbornness, like keeping the Phoenix Coyotes in the desert long after it has been conclusively shown that the franchise is not financially viable.
To win this thing, the union is going to have to be a lot like Ted Lindsay: tough, courageous, unyielding, determined. Earlier this week, Lindsay left on vacation after spending the day at NHLPA headquarters in Toronto. Hopefully, he was able to imbue the current players with some of his fighting spirit.
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