NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman restarted the talks last week with a proposal… (Kathy Willens / Associated…)
The NHL's labor dispute is finally lumbering toward the finish line, leaving in its tortured wake untold damage to fans' faith and deep dents in the wallets of team, arena and restaurant workers who depend on hockey games for their livelihood.
The next few days' negotiations between the league and the players' association will determine whether there will be an abbreviated season or if the only victories at stake will be won in courtrooms. An ominous tone crept in Thursday, when two small-group sessions produced no real progress and the NHLPA asked its members to take the complex legal step of approving a potential dissolution of the union. But there's still reason enough to believe there will be a season, that they will realize they must compromise or they will cause lasting damage to a game that manages to survive despite the people who run it.
Neither side can legitimately claim at this stage that the potential gains of holding out for a better deal outweigh all that has already been lost — or all that could yet be lost if Commissioner Gary Bettman follows the script from 2004-05 and again cancels a full season.
Each has moved toward the other on key issues, most recently with the NHL proposing to allow each team to buy out two contracts before the 2013-14 season instead of one, and with the NHLPA dropping its proposal that players' escrow payments be capped. They're also close on a 10-year term for the deal, though they differ on when opt-out clauses would kick in.
Their biggest remaining differences center on the NHL's liability in funding the players' pension plan, the percentage by which players' salaries could vary year to year, and the league's insistence on a $60-million salary cap for 2013-14 to protect small-budget teams versus the NHLPA's proposal of $65 million. The length of contracts also remains unsettled, though the sides are not far apart. Logic and sense — which have been absent from the proceedings until recently — suggest these gaps can easily be bridged without unreasonable punishment to either side.
Labor negotiations in any field typically have up-and-down cycles, and these proceedings have followed that pattern.
Bettman, prodded by several influential owners who want the season to be played, restarted the stagnant talks last week with a proposal and a warning that the puck would have to drop by Jan. 19 to cram in a schedule of at least 48 games. That threat — and the return of a federal mediator for a third attempt at conciliation — intensified the pace of offers and counteroffers until tensions flared Thursday over the league's attempt to change some terms regarding accounting for hockey-related revenue.
That won't be the last flare-up, but there's no more room for emotions now.
The sides weren't scheduled to conduct full-scale talks on Friday, but federal mediator ScotBeckenbaugh was expected to return, his role now to ping-pong from one side's camp to the other while trying to forge a consensus.
Both sides have, at least, dropped the rhetoric that tainted their earlier talks. Neither is accusing the other of being unwilling to deal or posturing to put itself in a better light. It's too bad it took them this long to get to the point where they're truly negotiating and working off each other's offers and trading compromise for compromise, but now that they've gotten this far they must finish this off with a new collective bargaining agreement and a season.
Watching telecasts of the World Junior Hockey Championship in Ufa, Russia, this week has robbed me of sleep but has renewed my affection for the game and the people who love it. Team USA's growth and maturation as it powered through to a gold-medal matchup Saturday against Sweden has been a joy to experience. Sharing that with people around the world via social media has reminded me of the passion of the hockey community, a passion the NHL and the players' union must keep in mind over the next few days while they shape the very future of the game.