Friday, January 4, 2013

League to Union: This is the Final Offer... Seriously

bettman fehr nhl lockout
A deal needs to get done in a matter of days, or else the season will be cancelled.

At least that's what an anonymous league source has told the Winnipeg Free Press' Gary Lawless.

In Lawless' latest article the league source, a veteran member of the NHL's board of governors, says Gary Bettman is prepared to cancel the season next Thursday (Jan. 10) if the two sides cannot agree on a new CBA. Using a tired league tactic, the source lays the blame solely with Donald Fehr.

From Lawless:

"The chill that has settled on NHL labour negotiations is all part of a Don Fehr plan to push commissioner Bettman into a corner for one last squeeze..."

"The league believes Fehr is unwilling to do a deal until after Bettman has cancelled the NHL season..."

"The governor said owners and league personnel believe Fehr is trying to blow up the process and is no longer interested in making a deal."

The final quote is exactly the perception of Fehr the league has tried to force through the media since talks began. Fehr, an interloper with no interest in hockey, is indifferent about making a deal, which surely would have been done a long time ago without Fehr in charge.

For months now the NHL has tried to discredit Fehr through the media and drive a wedge between the PA and its leader, alleging that Fehr is misleading the players and has ulterior motives. League attacks are then accompanied by a threat that the offer on the table is as good as the PA will receive, and that pushing any further will result in a worse deal for the union.

Except exactly the opposite occurs. In every instance the union's resolve has grown stronger and the league's offer gets better. When Bettman last got furious at Fehr in December he declared that the $300-million make-whole offer was off the table before Bill Daly added that five-year term limits were "the hill we will die on."

Well, make-whole is still very much on the table and Daly isn't dead, even though the league increased contract limits to six years (seven when a team re-signs its own player).

Accordingly, it is very hard to take the NHL's new threat seriously after each previous threat has turned out to be nothing more than hot air.

But this time, the league is super serious about this being the final offer. There is no more room to budge. And if a deal doesn't get made before next Thursday's deadline, well, it's going to get a lot worse for the union.

According to Lawless and his league source, "Bettman will be willing to listen and talk with Fehr after he cancels the season but it will be on the basis of doing a deal for the 2013-14 season. Once the commissioner cancels this season, a 50-50 share will no longer be offered and the league will pursue a much revamped package because the owners will have no incentive to make the deal that was on the table."

Ok, guys, we know the last three times it was our final offer, but seriously, this is the final offer. Super, super seriously.

The progress over the past week has been the most since December (when the two sides were already very close), so it seems inconceivable that the NHL would be willing to flush away the season over such small differences. There has been movement by both sides on contract limits, CBA term, compliance buyouts, and variance. The remaining issues, like pensions and the salary cap in the second year (the players want $65 million and the league wants $60) are not enough to torpedo an entire season.

In reality, the league's latest threat is more posturing, conveniently coming out after the union chose not to use its disclaimer of interest. It is no coincidence that Lawless, the same journalist Bettman did an exclusive interview with back in November, got this scoop from the league, rather than someone like, say, Larry Brooks, a staunch critic of the league's lockout tactics. The league knows the message it's trying to publish won't be filtered.

And low-and-behold, Lawless glosses over the reports that negotiations, which were progressing astonishingly smoothly up until the union's self-imposed disclaimer of interest deadline, took on a decidedly different tone after the union lost its leverage. Hmm, I wonder why.

While not surprising, it's disappointing that the league is still more concerned with silly, transparent posturing than actual negotiating even as the season slowly ticks away.

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