VANCOUVER — After Roberto Luongo signed his first contract in Vancouver, agent Gilles Lupien was asked how he could agree in a few minutes with the Canucks to a deal that had caused years of acrimony and ill will in Florida.
After Roberto Luongo signed his first contract in Vancouver, agent Gilles Lupien was asked how he could agree in a few minutes with the Canucks to a deal that had caused years of acrimony and ill will in Florida.
“Well, look, it’s like sometimes you get home and you want to go out,” Lupien explained. “And your wife doesn’t want to go out, so you spend the whole night fighting about it. But if you want to go out and your wife wants to go out, it’s easy: ‘Let’s get dressed and go out.’ ”
It’s one of the most sensible things anyone has ever said about the negotiating process. If your wife doesn’t want to go out, forget it. Read a book.
When National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman, motivated by the possibility that a full season of revenue might yet be salvaged from the mess he is most responsible for creating, made a new offer Tuesday to players’ union boss Donald Fehr, he was essentially seeing if he could get his partner to dance.
Maybe they’ll go out, maybe they won’t. But thank goodness someone screwed up the courage to ask.
This is only the first step. The NHL and its players are a long way from getting remarried and you’re ignoring bargaining history — and a lot of fine print — if you leap to the conclusion that the NHL’s new offer means the regular season will start Nov. 2, as Bettman envisions.
But the league’s proposal to evenly split revenue with players has the potential to become the foundation of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Rather than the end of the lockout, we’re probably seeing the start of the first genuine, good-faith negotiations of this dispute.
So, what took them so long?
It has seemed clear from the start that Fehr’s players, better informed and organized than they were the last time Bettman locked them out, aren’t going to accept another wage rollback in any form after their salaries were cleaved by 24 per cent in 2005.
If, as reported, there is a mechanism in the owners’ new offer to defer against future revenue growth any pay cuts required to reduce the players’ share of revenue to 50 per cent from 57, the sides could get past one of the dispute’s steepest hurdles.
The players have already indicated, through their proposal in August, their willingness to take less than 57 per cent of hockey-related revenue as long as their share is reduced over time and doesn’t include immediate pay cuts.
Why the NHL didn’t seize back then on this significant compromise is mystifying.
And Bettman’s own initial offer in July to chop players’ share of HRR to 43 per cent, eliminate salary arbitration, extend entry-level contracts and require 10 years of service for unrestricted free agency seems ludicrously counter-productive now.
That opening offer was, as former player Jason Strudwick put it, “a call to arms” for the NHLPA. It galvanized players and established a bitter tone far ahead of the lockout Bettman imposed on Sept. 15.
In a way, it took three months — until Tuesday — for negotiations to recover. Or start.
The timing of Bettman’s offer, made during a leaders’ summit at NHLPA headquarters in Toronto, is interesting. Besides coming just soon enough to allow for a full 82-game schedule to be played, it arrived one day after players missed their first paycheques and one day after embarrassing revelations that the league had hired a Republican Party strategist to spin public opinion against the players.
Strategist Frank Luntz, whose company boasts, “It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear,” had recommended the NHL use the term “shared sacrifice” when discussing the lockout.
Of course, measured against the expired CBA, all the sacrifice is with the players and none of it with owners, whose share of revenue escalated from about $500 million before the 2004-05 lockout to $1.4 billion last season. Over the same period, the players’ share increased to about $1.9 billion from $1.5 billion.
Bettman’s new offer is a “compromise” only in that the league will settle for less than it originally demanded. Still, there may be a basis here for an agreement.
According to reports, the NHL has softened most of its most contentious demands, such as the elimination of salary arbitration, but not all of them. Owners still want individual contracts capped at five years and for UFA eligibility to be tightened. They also want one-way contracts dumped in the minors to count against the NHL salary cap, which would affect teams like the Canucks.
Fehr offered only a tepid response to Bettman’s proposal. But the union will seek clarity on some issues Wednesday and bargaining could resume Thursday.
The CBA is always about money, and the bottom line on the bottom line is that the league no longer insists on the bigger slice of the revenue pie and has ideas how the players’ portion can be downsized to 50 per cent without cutting existing contracts.
There has been a deal to be made here all along. It just took until Oct. 16 for the sides to catch the first glimpse of it.
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