NHL talks reach critical stage

NHL talks reach critical stage
November 8, 2012, 10:00 pm
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NHL owners, players continue to talk

Thursday’s meeting between the NHL and its players’ union was viewed by many as the tipping point in negotiations for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Would the NHL owners accept the players’ two proposals – one on how teams should distribute revenue to struggling teams and the other on how the league should “make whole” on existing NHL contracts?

The answer appears to be no. But after meeting for more than five hours at a Manhattan law firm on Thursday, the two sides have agreed to return to the bargaining table on Friday and through the weekend in an attempt to hammer out an agreement that will save the season.

“I’m not going to characterize it except to say, as I have before, that it’s always better when you’re meeting than when you’re not,” NHLPA executive director Don Fehr said at the conclusion of Thursday’s meeeting.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said it is “tough to handicap” the progress of Thursday’s talks.

“I don’t know what Don said, but the fact is, we have a lot of work to do and we’re working hard,” Bettman said.

Bettman was asked why the league and players’ union had insisted on keeping negotiations at an undisclosed location with minimal contact with the media.

“Because we have work to do and my hope is that we can achieve the goal of getting a long-term, fair agreement in place as quickly as possible so we can play hockey,” Bettman responded.

Clearly, there are still major obstacles that need to be cleared. The players reportedly have offered to drop their percentage of hockey-related revenue from their current 57 percent to 50 percent in Year 3 of the agreement, likely dropping to 54 percent this season and 52 percent next year, with 50-50 coming into play for the 2014-15 season.

The owners want an immediate 50-50 split beginning this season.

The players also want assurances that the most profitable NHL teams give substantial financial assistance to the NHL’s least profitable teams – namely, the Islanders, Coyotes, Hurricanes, Predators, Panthers and Blue Jackets.

Last year the NHL’s wealthiest teams contributed just $150 million of the NHL’s $3.3 billion in revenue [4.5 percent] toward revenue sharing. Compare that to major league baseball, where the most profitable teams contribute 31 percent of their revenue to the weakest links.

The players are asking the owners to boost their annual contributions toward revenue sharing from $150 million to $260 million, an idea that does not sit well with owners in New York, Philadelphia, Toronto and Boston, not to mention Washington, who annually contribute in the neighborhood of $20 million toward revenue sharing.

According to the Toronto Globe and Mail, in the owners’ most recent proposal at least 50 percent of the revenue sharing pool would come from the NHL’s 10 highest grossing teams, with the remaining 50 percent would come from league- and playoff-generated revenue.

In the opinion of the players, that isn’t enough to sustain struggling franchises like the Phoenix Coyotes, who in 2008-09 received more in revenue sharing [$13.5 million] than they generated in ticket revenue [$13.3 million].

[The long-term fix, of course, would be to relocate the Coyotes to Quebec, where they would sell out every night; move the Predators to Hamilton, Ontario; move the Blue Jackets to Seattle … But that’s a discussion for another day.]

The players’ argument is this: If the league is dropping their share of revenue from 57 percent to 50 percent, why doesn’t it take that $230 million it is saving and put it right into the revenue sharing pot instead of into their own pockets.

It’s an argument worth having and you better believe it’s the one getting the most mileage this week in New York.

In the meantime, the clock is ticking to get a deal in place so that hockey can be played at the start of December.

“Every day that passes I think is critical,” Bettman said, “for the game and for our fans.”