Ryan Miller is accustomed to pressure. It’s built into his job.
The Buffalo Sabres goaltender has played in overtime of an Olympic gold-medal game, his country’s hockey pride weighing on his padded shoulders. He’s been in playoff elimination games with all of Sabreland focusing on his every move.
The events of this week, however, were unlike any Miller had ever experienced. He and 19 other players were tasked with not only saving this National Hockey League season but also creating an economic system that would allow owners and players to fairly split billions of dollars per year for the next decade – and they had to do it while negotiating against some of the richest and most successful businessmen in the world.
At one point Wednesday, everything was falling apart. The seven NHL representatives, led by Boston Bruins owner and Buffalo native Jeremy Jacobs, were ready to walk out of the talks. Miller knew the season and the reputations of those involved would be at risk, and he wouldn’t allow it.
“The owners wanted to leave the room and pull everything we spent a full day on,” Miller told The Buffalo News on Friday during an exchange of texts and emails. “I asked them to stay and continue pushing through. I may have been passionate, but there was no disrespect or calling out one owner by name. I have a lot of respect for any owner, because they are a big part of hockey.”
His passion play worked. The sides got through Wednesday, which ended with the league making a yes-or-no proposal that the NHL Players’ Association was expected to answer Thursday. From there, things were out of the hands of the players and owners, and the decisions returned to the people who are rightfully in charge of them – NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr.
Everything blew up in a way that will lead hockey historians to write books. Instead of getting an answer Thursday night, the league received a counterproposal that accepted offered concessions but requested tweaks to the NHL’s three sacred ideals: a limit on contract lengths; a regulation on yearly salary variance; and the absence of additional payments to players in the form of buyouts or escrow limits.
“We made very, very clear what the parameters were that would have gotten a deal done,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said during his New York news conference. “What we got [Thursday] quite frankly and disappointingly missed the mark in all three respects.”
The previously private negotiations exploded in public, with a visibly furious Bettman pulling the league’s entire offer at precisely the moment the union was trumpeting the closeness of the parties. The sides spent Friday trying to assess the damage, which is expected to include at least the rest of this month’s schedule and possibly the entire 2012-13 season.
“I feel that there will be a season,” Sabres defenseman Robyn Regehr said after skating in Northtown Center at Amherst. “I feel that all along there really hasn’t been a fair deal on the table that can be cut. I feel the deals that have been proposed are one-sided toward the owners. … I think that all along Gary has taken a very confrontational approach to this. He’s got a plan in place, and I believe he’s got some sort of date in mind that they can get a shortened season in.”
Bettman vehemently denies having a date in mind. “You know what my magic date was? It was Oct. 11 when we should have opened the season with a new collective bargaining agreement,” he said. But a drop-dead date is fast approaching anyway. Games are canceled through next Saturday, and more will be axed as soon as today. Bettman said he can’t imagine playing fewer than 48 games of what’s supposed to be an 82-game season, which leaves the sides with about a month to formulate an agreement.
The lockout-shortened 1994-95 season was 48 games long after a deal was struck Jan. 11. The closer the sides get to that date, the more likely it is the league will cancel its second season in eight years. The 2004-05 campaign was also wiped out by a labor dispute.
“The key for all of us, particularly the owners but everybody with the league and associated with the game, was to have a long-term agreement,” Bettman said. “That’s what our fans deserve. That’s what the game deserves. That’s what the players deserve, and that’s what all of our business partners deserve.”
The lingering question is how to achieve that. On the surface, the sides were not far apart Thursday:
• The NHL wanted a 10-year CBA, with an opt-out clause after eight; the NHLPA proposed an eight-year deal with an option after six.
• The league proposed a five-year limit on contracts, with an exception of seven years for teams that re-sign their own players; the union offered an eight-year limit.
• The NHL wanted salaries to vary no more than 5 percent from year to year; the union proposed that the lowest annual salary of a player’s contract be at least 25 percent of his highest salary.
• As the sides transition to a 50-50 revenue split from a system that had the players earning 57 percent, the league would have allowed teams to spend to the previous salary cap ($70.2 million) rather than the proposed $60 million for one year; the union was hoping for contract buyouts, which would have players get paid for an extinguished deal and earn more money with a new one. There seemed to be room to negotiate. But, again, the NHL said this offer was non-negotiable. Why?
“At some point you’ve given as much, if not more, than you probably should have,” Bettman said. “At some point you have to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘This is the best we can do.’ ”
The players’ association is devising its next step while striving to retain unity. The players are publicly together, but the 700-plus members are eager to get on the ice, and some may have wanted to accept the NHL’s offer. They could follow the lead of the previously locked-out football and basketball players and file a disclaimer of interest, which allows unions in an untenable financial position a chance to dissolve. With no union, the lockout would be declared illegal.
Daly previously said that step would likely force the cancellation of the season. The best option for both sides is to return to negotiating. No meetings are scheduled. As hard as it is to believe, talks could get even more difficult. The sides were in agreement on financial structure, but Bettman said the league’s “make whole” proposal – a $300 million payment to the players to fulfill their existing contracts as the revenue split downshifted to 50-50 – has expired. So they again need to negotiate money and contracting rights.
“By limiting years of a contract and variance in the level of salary year to year, the player hurt is any player temporarily caught in between what will become a two-tier salary structure,” Miller wrote. “It is true a vast majority of players will never use the right to sign for up to five years. That is not even close to a point in this argument. It is about what money is available to the biggest group in the sport and maintaining NHL hockey as a long-term career option.
“A lot has been said about the stars being greedy. But this is an issue that directly affects my brother [Detroit third-line forward Drew Miller], and I am absolutely thinking about players like him and the good of the game. ... It makes average player careers shorter, so why as a group of players would we accept to accelerate that or create a lever to accelerate that in an agreement that would last 10 years? We don’t want to do it.”
So for as far as the sides have come since September – they have settled on nine pages worth of issues – they have a long way to go and not a lot of time to get there.