The devil, as always, is in the details. And when it comes to a labor negotiation, there are details upon details to consider. Still, there’s no denying this: the new offer the NHL submitted Tuesday to the NHL Players’ Association is the biggest step yet toward getting the NHL back on the ice.
In a long, fraught negotiation that has offered very few signs of progress, this was just short of a puff of white smoke. The NHL on Tuesday abandoned many of the more extreme proposals from its Declaration of Labor War offer earlier this summer and ended up where most people think the NHL and NHLPA will end up eventually, at a 50-50 split of revenue between players and owners.
If this works, the NHL intends to play a compressed, 82-game season beginning Nov. 1, preserving for both sides the revenue that goes with it.
Sounds good, but we’re not done yet. The players have acknowledged their share is going to decrease going forward. The issue has always been getting there.
Players received 57 percent of revenue under the old deal and owners spent the summer handing out scores of lucrative, long-term deals to everyone but the mascots before immediately pleading poverty the moment the labor agreement expired. For the players, it has been a cornerstone of their negotiating position that they want the full value of the contracts they signed this summer, when both sides knew the terms of the deal would be changing soon.
An immediate drop to 50 percent would take a hefty chunk of players’ contracts through escrow, the process by which a portion of every paycheck is held until the end of the year, and players get some or all of it back to ensure that total salaries equal exactly the negotiated percentage once salaries and revenue are calculated, 57 percent under the old deal. Getting that down to 50 percent immediately would amount to an instant 12 percent pay cut. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the league’s new offer acknowledges that.
“We believe we addressed the concern that players have about what happens to their salaries as a result in this year of reducing the percentage from 57 to 50 percent,” Bettman said at a press conference in Toronto.
Bettman wouldn’t go into details, but reportedly, the owners’ new proposal offers to pay the players the current value of their contracts over the course of the new deal, a sort of reverse escrow through deferred payments. Combine that contract protection with the NHL making reasonable requests for changes to free agency and entry-level contracts, and you might just have the makings of a deal.
There are sticking points here for the players: the details of the contract protection will surely be examined closely; players are being asked to give up a year of unrestricted free agency and accept a maximum five-year contract length; and no one has talked about the Olympics, an important point for the players, yet. (All of those details come from John Shannon of Canada’s Sportsnet.)
Nevertheless, the broad strokes of the deal appear to be, if not completely acceptable to the NHLPA, a reasonable foundation for actual negotiations going forward. Just like buying a car, everything’s negotiable here, but the NHL looks like it’s done enough to get the union to come inside the dealership and sit down to talk.
Only in a professional sports labor negotiation would the offer of an immediate 12 percent pay cut be considered generous, but the NHL appears to have not only taken steps to address those concerns but taken a more moderate edge on many of the other points of contention.
The NHLPA took Tuesday night to analyze the offer, and its response, hopefully Wednesday, will be telling. The puck is in the union’s end now. For the moment, though, there’s more reason for optimism than there has been throughout this process, and for the first time in months, there’s reason to believe the NHL might actually play this season.