An emotional week of ups and downs through the NHL labor negotiations ended Thursday evening with no sign that a deal will be reached anytime soon between the NHL and the NHLPA. Widespread optimism on Tuesday night after new faces joined the talks were met with sour negotiations on Wednesday, and ended Thursday evening after a livid Gary Bettman announced the rejection of the players latest proposal.
On Wednesday, the NHL decided to put an extra $100 million dollars towards the issue of "Make Whole", which has been stated by Don Fehr and the players as their key part to the new CBA. This extra money was the owners way of expressing interest that they indeed want to get a deal done to see the players back on the ice. In return for this $100 million and moving towards the players demand, they laid out issues that are most important to them and that they would need the union to agree on. One of those was player contract lengths and the amount of variance the deal has. The NHL has repeatedly said it wants a 5-year limit on deals, with a 5% variance. The owners also want a 10-year deal to come out of this CBA. The players want a 5-6 year deal.
The players broke to meet internally, and came back with a response that they would take the $100 million extra as part of Make Whole, but they also said they wouldn't budge on other issues. From Gary Bettman's description of the owners reaction, they were all shocked and very emotional at the NHLPA's continued demands. But still, the two sides continued to meet, in hopes of finding some common ground. By the end of the day on Wednesday, furious owners made one more pitch to the players and told them to get back to them tomorrow with a yes or no answer. The offer included the extra $100 million in Make Whole, and was a deal for a 10 year long CBA agreement. The contract lengths of 5-years and 5% variance were part of the deal as well.
Thursdays negotiations lasted about an hour before the players seemed to make their last offer to the owners. Don Fehr expressed optimism that they think this was going to be the proposal that could get them to be playing hockey in the very near future. Everybody seems in a celebratory mood. Fehr had barely left the podium before receiving word from Bill Daly that the players proposal was rejected, and that everything including the extra $100 million in Make Whole was now off the table. A complete 180.
Gary Bettman and Bill Daly eventually came to explain the reasoning for their immediate dismissal of the NHLPA's proposal, and went on a rampage for about 40 minutes. The offer the players received on Wednesday night was to be given with a yes or no answer on Thursday and that Thursday's meetings were not meant for bargaining, but a time for the players to give that answer. The answer was clearly no, based on the proposal that the players gave the league. No future talks are scheduled and the season is hanging by a thread.
What does all this mean? Well, this is about the lowest we've been so far in these negotiations. We were all fools for thinking on Tuesday night that a deal was possible in the near future, myself included. The owners have said that the minimum number of games they would play in a shortened season was 48. If that's the case, we're just a few weeks away from yet another season being scrapped. In 1995, a deal was made on January 10th, and a 48-game season started on January 28th, with the cup being awarded at the end of June. We'll need to make up some serious ground if we're to see a repeat of that.
As a fan, I've never been more mad at Donald Fehr throughout this process than I was tonight. He knew damn right that the NHL was not going to accept his proposal he gave today, yet he made a news conference as if the sides would be able to make a deal in the coming days. With as far as we are into this process, it's just not fair to play around with the fan's emotions like that. It was a really dumb move on his part that I don't think the players should overlook moving forward.
The next week is important to the NHLPA, in terms of what to with their next move. It's growing more likely that they'll file a disclaimer of interest against the NHL or decertify the NHLPA all together. Filing a disclaimer of interest is the more immediate route of the two. It would mean the union wouldn't be a bargaining union and there wouldn't be any more negotiations. Don Fehr would essentially be out of the picture from the players side. The players would then file an anti-trust lawsuit against the National Hockey League.
Decertification is another route the players may resort to but it's more of a drawn out process. The players would need to take a vote to decertify, and if they choose that's the best way to go, the NHLPA would cease to exist. Each player would be treated as an individual who would argue that they want to go back to work and are being denied that opportunity by the NHL. There would be no rules since there isn't a CBA. It's a huge risk for the players, especially since it is a binding outcome. This season would absolutely be cancelled and the beginning of next season would be in doubt.
The sense from around the hockey writers is that nobody has ever seen Gary Bettman as livid as he was tonight. Part of it may have been the fact that Don Fehr expressed so much optimism on how close the sides were and that a deal was there to be made. The other part may have been that the owners gave in to the players Make Whole demand, but still asked for more.
We have about another few weeks before this season is going to get cancelled. I've said this many times before, but the league is doing irreparable damage to itself. It's so sad to witness it all unfold from the sidelines. When sports writers and team beat writers are worried about the future of the NHL, we as fans should too.