NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman responds to questions during a news conference. (Mary Altaffer / Associated…)
NEW YORK—NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players’ Assn. Executive Director Donald Fehr were poised to rejoin labor negotiations Thursday after moving aside to let their respective top lieutenants preside over the talks for two days.
The change comes at a critical juncture in the discussions, which produced some movement on each side on Tuesday and Wednesday. However, left unresolved were key issues such as as the league’s insistence on a five-year cap on contracts and a maximum 5% salary variance from year to year.
The NHL did throw in a new wrinkle by proposing that teams would be allowed to re-sign their own free agents for seven years, not five. The NBA has a similar free-agency provision.
NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly and NHLPA Special Counsel Steve Fehr led each delegation on Tuesday and Wednesday with the participation of six owners and 18 players. The sides talked for about 20 hours over the two days, sometimes meeting among themselves and sometimes moving from one floor of a Manhattan hotel to another to gather with the opposite side.
The NHL agreed to increase its “make whole” payments to $300 million from its previous offer of $211 million, but the NHLPA had asked for $393 million to ensure players would be paid the full value of their contracts as they make the transition from getting a 57% share of hockey-related revenue to 50%. The NHLPA was also proposing a five-year deal and was adamantly opposed to the 10-year term the league wants.
The NHL did agree to leave the conditions for free agency and salary arbitration as they were under the last collective bargaining agreement, which expired on Sept. 15.
Moderates such as Pittsburgh Penguins owner Ron Burkle, a California billionaire who made his fortune in the supermarket industry, helped keep the process moving Wednesday when the sides hit snags and emotions grew heated. Burkle and others such as Tampa Bay owner Jeff Vinik were brought in to ease communication, which had grown testy when hardliner Jeremy Jacobs of Boston took part in the negotiations. Burkle’s influence was often felt and he is expected to remain a pivotal figure.
Pensions were also believed to be a point of contention, though it’s likely that such issues can be resolved without much difficulty once the key points are agreed upon.
Bettman and Donald Fehr were frequently consulted during the two days they weren’t actually in the negotiating rooms, but the dynamics of the talks are sure to change once they return. Does that mean a turn for the worse? Not necessarily. Both will have to be present once a deal is finally reached. But there are many potential pitfalls between where the sides stand now and the point where a deal is in sight. And any day, the league is sure to apply more pressure by canceling games beyond Dec. 14, the point it has already wiped the schedule clean.
The league and PA are meeting in private rooms at the New York hotel where they’ve met the last few days, beyond the reach of reporters. We’ll try to provide some updates later.
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