To say National Hockey League labor negotiations crashed and burned Thursday night would be like saying the Titanic is running a little behind schedule. With an irate commissioner speaking in front of an incredulous group of players, the lockout-delayed 2012-13 season moved closer to being a never-played 2012-13 season.
Talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association imploded in shocking fashion in New York. At precisely the moment NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr was saying how close the sides were thanks a new proposal by the players, his brother – union special counsel Steve Fehr – received a voicemail from the league saying it was pulling its entire offer off the table and no negotiations would be held for the rest of the week.
“I am disappointed beyond belief that we are where we are,” Commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters in New York. “We’re going to have to take a deep breath and try and regroup.”
The NHL has already canceled games through next Friday, and it is expected to eliminate at least the rest of December today. Since the sides are essentially back to Square One, it’s possible the league could ax even more than that.
“It looks like this is not going to be resolved in the immediate future,” Donald Fehr said in Manhattan. “It comes as a disappointment, obviously.”
The sides have been far apart throughout the process, and that was never more evident than during Fehr’s first news conference of the night.
A large union contingent, which included Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller, offered its proposal to a pair of league representatives during a one-hour meeting that began at 5 p.m. Fehr, with players standing behind him in a Manhattan hotel, explained the benefits of the proposal at about 6:45 p.m. He was more than confident. “We hope and believe and expect that this should put us on the road for a quick end to this dispute,” he said.
Before all the participants had even left the news conference, Steve Fehr retrieved his message. Shock and bewilderment filled the room.
“We feel like it should have been taken as a step toward ending this,” Miller, who had just left to catch a flight to his home in California, told The Buffalo News via text message. “How many concessions can we make?”
League members were asking themselves the same thing.
“We kept negotiating against ourselves,” Bettman said. “Anything that we put on the table this week is off the table.”
The sides resumed talks Tuesday with a new dynamic. Six owners met with 18 players as Bettman and Donald Fehr stayed on the sidelines. The first day of negotiations featured partnership and camaraderie.
“That sense of optimism, though, was something that almost inexplicably disappeared Wednesday afternoon when the four owners returned to the bargaining process,” Bettman said. “We’re at a loss to explain what happened, but things were not of the same tone as they had been on Tuesday.”
The nearly nine hours of talks Wednesday featured arguments and offers that were widely off the mark. Owners were set to walk away before being persuaded to stay by the players. “Negotiations were spirited and passionate at times but certainly not contentious,” Miller said via text. “A lot of respect was paid to the owners for good reason.”
The league closed Wednesday’s meeting with a formal proposal. Their version of a collective bargaining agreement would be 10 years in length, feature a five-year limit on contracts (seven years if a team was re-signing its own player) and include a $100 million increase in “make-whole” dollars, which would reimburse players for money they would lose as the sides made the transition from an economic system that had players earning 57 percent of the revenues to a 50-50 split.
“[Thursday] we were expecting an answer, a yes or a no,” Bettman said. “Our instructions from ownership was ... if the answer was no, there was no point in continuing discussions. The answer wasn’t yes.”
Rather than accept or decline the league’s proposal, the union crafted a counteroffer that Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said “cherry-picked” bits and pieces that the players liked. The parts the union liked were only available if it accepted the 10-year term and five-year limit on contracts. “Those moves were contingent on the union specifically agreeing on other things,” Bettman said. “This collective bargaining agreement is a total package.”
Instead, the union’s offer included the NHL concessions but asked for an eight-year term (with a opt-out clause after six years) and an eight-year contract limit.
“This is a package and everything fits together,” Bettman said. “Spinning us all into an emotional frenzy over maybe we’re close and we’re going to be playing hockey tomorrow is terribly unfair to our fans and this process.”