NHL talks — or lack thereof — have the familiar feel of a lockout

NHL talks — or lack thereof — have the familiar feel of a lockout
There have been no serious negotiations between NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players Association executive director Donald Fehr for more than a week.

The last time they talked, the league basically asked to re-open the just-signed extension to the collective bargaining agreement by asking for $300 million more in concessions from the players in order to play some kind of season in 2021.

Nothing since.

Then long stretches of silence. Things perked up mid-October, then again early-November, then again early December. That’s when the threats of legal action went both ways: The association saying it would decertify, the league saying it would nullify all contracts.

Things got serious on Dec. 27, and a deal was reached Jan. 6 (I was at London Heathrow, catching a connecting flight home from the world juniors in Russia, Team Canada’s players gathering around my phone because I was the only one with service.)

They had a one-week training camp starting Jan. 11. A 48-game season started Jan. 19.

It took them 13 days from the moment of a deal to get the season going. In the pandemic, it will take longer, say, another 14 days for quarantining (though there may be exemptions). But let’s say four weeks.

I’m predicting a similar timeline: a deal reached early January for a season starting early February and wrapping up late June.

Neither side is happy.

But while Bettman is using a similar strategy, he does not have the same cards. The deck was loaded in his favour back then. The owners were in line. He needed just eight to side with him to keep pounding away at the players for a better deal. Financial hawks like Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs were happy to oblige.

Now it’s the hawks who are least happy. Bettman kept the owners out of the talks with Fehr over the summer that led to the completion of the season and this memorandum of understanding that – on the face of it – guarantees a season in which the players will be paid 72 per cent of what they’re owed.

Bettman sprung the MOU on the board of governors, who unanimously endorsed it. It’s believed some voted merely on Bettman’s recommendation. Now, having subsequently read the MOU after it passed, some are unhappy with it.

It would probably cost each team at least around $150 million (all figures U.S.) to operate without fans for a season, factoring in payrolls, travel costs, team employees, league dues. It’s believed some have told Bettman they would be financially better off not playing.

It’s not like the players are happy, either. They spent the summer and fall thinking that they would at least get 72 per cent of their salary this season. Now they face the prospect of going as low as 55 per cent – based on Bettman’s last ask – or even getting as little as 32 per cent if the salaries end up being prorated for a shorter season.

Or nothing at all, if the season is not played.

Players will bend

If history tells us what will happen, the players will bend to the owners will, just as they did in 2005 and 2013.

Bettman seems to have the hammer: Article 5 of the collective bargaining agreement:

“Each Club, and, where appropriate, the League, in the exercise of its functions of management, shall in addition to its other inherent and legal rights to manage its business, including the direction and control of its team, have the right at any time and from time to time to determine when, where, how and under what circumstances it wishes to operate, suspend, discontinue, sell or move ...”
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