More NHL games canceled–are the two sides even close?

Published On October 22, 2012 | By Zoë Hayden

So, as we all know, the NHL has cancelled all games through November 1st, since a collective bargaining agreement with the NHLPA has yet to be reached. The recent agreement to an eventual 50/50 revenue split between the players and the league has been alternatively hailed as progress and negligible chatter. No one knows what happens next, but is it possible to ascertain how far apart the two sides actually are? Could there still be a season this year–let alone a full one?  According to Bill Daly, an agreement must be reached by this Thursday, November 2nd, for the season to allow for a full 82 games at a reasonable schedule.

The NHLPA and the owners appear to be far apart on when exactly the 50/50 split would come into effect.  The owners are apparently adamant about seeing the split in year one, while the players want to gradually decrease their share of HRR (hockey-related revenue) over the course of the next CBA. As Bleacher Report points out today, the NHLPA has also included a counter-offer in its proposals that allows for the 50/50 split right off the bat while guaranteeing any current contracts that would suffer from the new revenue split to be paid in full.  The decrease in share would only technically apply to new contracts under the new CBA. This would seem to be a fair compromise that gets everyone where they want to be in terms of HRR division and settles the biggest stumbling block to any and all negotiations. It’s this HRR splitting/revenue-sharing controversy that has kept phrases like “very far apart” and “disagreeing over fundamental ideas” in our vocabularies for over a month.

So why hasn’t anyone tried to handshake yet? Why did Gary Bettman walk away from the most recent negotiations on Thursday saying that he was so disappointed? From the sounds of the NHL commissioner, one would think that the NHLPA’s proposals were outrageously far-off from what the owners want.

The perception has boiled, unfortunately, down to rhetoric.  But deputy commissioner Bill Daly said that the framework of a deal was laid out on the table. The sides are closer than they have ever been on the key issue that they seemed to disagree about, and yet neither side really wants to admit it–most likely in the interest of obtaining something else before the semi-arbitrary November 2nd deadline. Donald Fehr is a labor negotiator through and through, not an NHL fan, and his determination to get his party what it wants is undeniable.

It’s also “just business” to the NHL owners who don’t want to compromise any of their key principles either if they don’t have to. Stalling a decision on HRR and the revenue sharing pool could lead to more ground being gained on either side when it comes to other CBA issues, such as the term of the CBA, the time frame on UFA eligibility for players, and player contract term limits. Never mind that the strategy of trying to wait out the other side hasn’t proven effective.

Regardless of how upset Bettman sounded this past week and regardless of the other pieces to the CBA puzzle that will need to be decided, the players’ concession to the 50/50 split is, in actuality, a pretty enormous step. It sets the precedent for meeting in the middle on as many issues as possible–even if, on others, one side will have to concede to the other if anyone actually wants to play hockey this season.

And as much as we hate to admit it, the biggest bargaining chips have nothing to do with the season itself, or that magical moment of the Cup being handed to the captain of its new masters. NHL owners are worried about saving its moneymakers: merchandise and the Winter Classic, a wonderful outdoor game often turned into a regular season dog and pony show in terms of advertising opportunities and hype.

It’s not the playoffs that businessmen are worried about saving; on paper, it’s playoff-time exposure and primetime ratings with NBC Sports.

Let’s hope that the NHL, in the wake of burgeoning economic success that followed the 2004-2005 lockout, is heavily motivated by those dollar signs. The emotional highs and lows that we crave from an NHL season depend on it.

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About The Author

Zoë Hayden is a 22-year-old writer from Hopwood, Pennsylvania currently living in Boston. She is a graduate of Emerson College and enjoys covering hockey, international sports tournaments, technology, history, science, and gender issues. You can find her on Twitter: @zoeclaire_