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NHL rejection could lead union to decertify

Owners turn down players' five-year offer, and commissioner doesn't sound optimistic.

November 21, 2012|By Helene Elliott
  • NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman leaves following labor talks on Nov. 9, 2012.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman leaves following labor talks on Nov. 9, 2012. (Louis Lanzano / Associated…)

The NHL on Wednesday turned down a five-year labor agreement proposed by the NHL Players' Assn., moving to the brink of losing December games and its All-Star festivities. Commissioner Gary Bettman, who has canceled games through Nov. 30 as well as the Jan. 1 Winter Classic, said the league's daily losses of $18 million to $20 million will affect its bargaining strategy.

"Any expectation that the offer is going to get better as time goes on is unrealistic," Bettman told reporters in New York.

The rejection, announced after the sides met twice at the league's headquarters, might spur the NHLPA to begin the decertification process, according to several people with knowledge of the situation but not authorized to discuss it publicly.

Decertification of the union — a strategy employed by the NFL Players' Assn. when it was locked out by the NFL in 2011 — would mean the NHLPA would no longer be the players' bargaining agent. Individual players could invoke antitrust laws and ask a federal court to end the lockout or sue the league for unfair business practices that are otherwise protected by a union-league relationship.

Ten NFL players, led by New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, sued their league last year. The case was settled when their labor dispute was resolved. The NFLPA had been reclassified as a trade union but was recertified to negotiate benefits in the new collective bargaining agreement.

The decertification option is rarely invoked because it's time-consuming and complex. An NHLPA spokesman declined to comment on the union's potential next steps.

Players on Wednesday presented what they called a "comprehensive" proposal, and it appeared the financial differences could be bridged. Donald Fehr, executive director of the NHLPA, calculated the gap at $182 million over the course of a five-year deal.

The NHLPA proposed a $393-million "make-whole" provision to compensate players for the money they will lose by going from 57% of hockey-related revenue to 50% annually. That broke down to getting $182 million the first season, $128 million in the second season, $72 million in the third and $11 million in the fourth. The provision would be phased out by the final season.

However, the NHL did not move off its $211-million "make-whole" offer and remained intent on securing a seven-year deal. The league also toughened a provision in its previous proposal and would delay eligibility for salary arbitration by a year. Bettman said the league had moved on "a number of things" but won't move any more.

"We're still far apart," he said.

Fehr said NHL negotiators' lack of interest indicated they "had a lot better things to do on the night before Thanksgiving than hear what we got." He added, "On the big things there was, as of today, no reciprocity in any meaningful sense."

NHL rules prohibit owners and team personnel from commenting on labor matters, but players expressed anger and frustration via social media. Montreal Canadiens forward Brandon Prust tweeted, "Gary Bettman's biography is in stores now. It's titled, 'How I destroyed a sport and a nation.'"

However, players' support might not be unanimous. According to a translation by Czech TV personality Roman Jedlicka, Washington Capitals defenseman Roman Hamrlik told the Czech publication Daily Sport that players "have to push Fehr to the wall to get a deal," and said that if the season is canceled, "he should leave and we will find someone new."

helene.elliott@latimes.com

Twitter: @helenenothelen

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