NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

December 7, 2012

NHL rejects latest offer after initial agreement

Associated Press
Newburyport Daily News

---- — Minutes after saying that the sides had “complete agreement” on dollars that was reflected in the union’s Thursday proposal, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr returned for a second press conference and said that the NHL had, out of hand, rejected the offer and taken “something” off the table.

That message, Fehr said, had been delivered by voicemail, while he was giving his first press conference.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, who along with outside counsel Bob Batterman received the issue shortly beforehand, placed the call to NHLPA special counsel Steve Fehr.

League commissioner Gary Bettman was not present for the hour-long negotiation session, but he addressed media at a midtown Manhattan hotel later on Thursday night.

He said, because of movement on the pension plan, the union had to give a yes or no answer. They did not—so no formal negotiations are scheduled, and the NHL’s concessions on UFA and arbitration rules are off the table, at minimum.

“It appears that the union is suggesting that, because we made substantial moves in certain areas, that we’re close to a deal,” Bettman said—adding quickly that was not the case, calling the implication that the sides were close to an agreement unfair and, later, “incomprehensible.”

Both men referred to the owners’ Wednesday offer as a “package deal” with a 10-year term and eight-year opt-out; Daly said the union was instead “cherry-picking” from it.

“I am disappointed beyond belief that we are where are tonight,” Bettman said—and he didn’t stop there over the course of his 40-plus minute press conference, giving a string of relatively emotional, combative comments about his displeasure with the players’ position and tactics, and painting them as a series of requests that would threaten the future of the league.

Bettman also said that while there was no “drop-dead” date, he couldn’t imagine playing a season of less than 48 games, which likely means that the sides have roughly another month to figure things out, and said the thought of losing a second season in eight years “torments me.”

Bettman and Donald Fehr were not present for meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday, instead turning the floor largely over to owners and players. While at times contentious, the meetings were perceived to be productive and resulted in the owners’ offer—then Thursday happened.

Daly and Bettman were audibly frustrated at what they perceived to be the NHLPA changing the issues most important to them as a means of gaining leverage elsewhere.

It was a stunning reversal of course in a day filled with them, but the takeaway is unquestionably bad. Fehr had said that the main sticking points were the league’s proposed five-year limit on contracts and maximum five-percent variance on salaries, which is designed to avoid back-diving, cap circumventing deals.

“We had expressed the view that previously we didn’t think we were nearly as far apart as the owners did, but I think it’s clear now that after the players took today, that there doesn’t seem to be very much room—certainly not unbridgeable room—and we think that the positions the players took today are a step to end this particular dispute,” Fehr said.

Then he left. Then he came back—with bad news.

Owners offered players $300 million in “make-whole”/transitional payments on Wednesday night. Their previous offer was $211 million; the players’ previous request was $393 million.

Fehr said the sides agreed on the main financial issues—the yearly revenue split and how much owners would pay players outside of that to “make whole” on existing contracts, but both he and New York Rangers captain Brad Richards restated how important the contract limit issue was to the union.

“If it’s so crazy, then I’m pretty sure you’d rather have Sidney Crosby under contract for 12 years than not. That’s our opinion,” Richards told reporters in New York, including SN’s Jesse Spector.

But, whether spin, opinion or fact, both men were clear: They didn’t expect the league’s next move.

“We hope and believe and expect that this should put us on a quick road to the end of this dispute,” Fehr said.