While America celebrated Thanksgiving on Thursday, and a day of shopping galore yesterday on Black Friday, the NHL and NHLPA brought no such good news to the fore after their most recent week of meetings. By all accounts, the two sides still appear quite divided on the core economic issues that underlie the overall dispute. In Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Don Fehr’s press conferences, neither side seemed optimistic about a resolution. This has led to a further cancelling of games (through December 14, a total of 34.3% of the regular season), as well as a cancellation of the annual All-Star Weekend. Besides the Winter Classic, this is the NHL’s biggest attraction for fans, as it always adds excitement and flare to the league’s image.
In my opinion, there are two key issues that, unless resolved, will continue to prevent the two sides from reaching an agreement. ESPN.com’s Pierre LeBrun did nice work summarizing all the points in this article. The first is the “Make-Whole” Provision, which deals with how the league will pay out extant player contracts. This is obviously such an important issue for the players because they feel (rightly) that they should not have to sacrifice money that has already been promised to them. It does seem curious that the league would be so stingy in this regard, just months after multiple league owners (Minnesota especially) signed mammoth long-term contacts to marquee players. Perhaps they offered these deals knowing that they would push for a provision in the new CBA that would allow them to pay only a portion of those deals. In either case, players should not have to take a significant reduction in these deals, and owners should be more willing to pay contracts they signed under the old CBA.
The second sticking point deals with player contract rules and regulations. General Managers found loopholes in the old system and circumvented the cap in crafty ways. Through the use of huge term deals (10+ years), teams could spread large salaries over many years to achieve a manageable cap hit, even if they knew these contracts would put players into seasons well past their primes (see: Kovalchuk, Luongo). Owners are now pushing for a maximum (five years) on contract lengths, among other stifling proposals. Again, I side with the NHLPA on this point because it will make the league more homogeneous. Don Fehr made this point in another LeBrun article this week. If every team is operating under the same strict guidelines, the GM position would be superfluous. As it exists, GM’s have one basic constraint (the salary cap), and NHL clubs are differentiated based on how successfully a GM can build a team based on this constraint. Instituting more limitations on player contracts would eliminate this art and add even more parity to the NHL.
The direction of negotiations is far from promising, and unless the league and the players association can meet on these two issues, the 2012-2013 season is in serious jeopardy.