NHL Is Talking

The NHL and the players’ association made progress during more than 15 hours of negotiations, but they likely will need more time to work out a deal to end the months-long lockout.

Talks were still going strong past 4 a.m. EST Sunday. There just didn’t appear to be an agreement in sight yet.
“Doubtful,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The Associated Press in an email when asked if the possibility existed for a new agreement in this extended round of talks.

It certainly wasn’t from a lack of trying.

After nearly 13 hours of meeting separately with federal mediator Scot Beckenbaugh on Friday, the sides again had talks with him Saturday morning. That laid the groundwork for the marathon negotiations that began around 1 p.m. and were coming close to the daylight hours in Manhattan.

The league and the union had stayed mostly apart the previous two days after talks turned sour.

Once Beckenbaugh convinced the fighting factions to resume face-to-face negotiations Saturday afternoon, they were able to make progress. While no one commented publicly on what was accomplished, it was reported that headway was being made on key issues such as the pension plan and salary cap limits.

This marked the longest bargaining session of this lockout and the second marathon meeting of the week. It also was the latest hour the sides were together.

The league and the union talked until 1 a.m. Thursday before negotiations hit a snag.

Bargaining proceeded at a slow pace on Saturday, and the sides also separated to hold internal caucuses. Beckenbaugh conducted meetings alone with the union and league before bringing them together.

Beckenbaugh walked back and forth several times Friday between the headquarters of each side – beginning at 10 a.m. and wrapping things up shortly before 11 p.m.

While he never got the league and the union in the same room then, enough was accomplished to convince the sides to keep going.

Beckenbaugh began Saturday by holding a meeting with the union and then walked over to talk to the NHL office. He then made the trek back to the players’ association’s hotel for the group meeting.

The sides have less than a week to reach a new collective bargaining agreement to save what likely would be a 48-game hockey season.

Beckenbaugh also took part in talks during the 2004-05 lockout, which forced the cancellation of the whole season.

The players’ association concluded a two-day vote among its members on Saturday night that was expected to again give the union’s executive board the authority to declare a disclaimer of interest.

The disclaimer can now be issued at any time. If so, the union would dissolve and become a trade association. That could send this fight to the courts and put the season in jeopardy. The disclaimer would allow players to file individual antitrust suits against the NHL.

Earlier this week, a self-imposed deadline expired on the first authorization that union members gave the board. The initial threat seemed to work in getting the NHL back to the bargaining table, but talks broke down Wednesday night after the deadline passed without action taken by the union.

Now the players want to regain the leverage the potential disclaimer gives them.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman set a Jan. 11 deadline for a deal so the season can begin eight days later. A 48-game season is the minimum Bettman said the league would play.

All games through Jan. 14, along with the All-Star game, have been canceled, claiming more than 50 percent of the original schedule.

Trust has become a major impediment in the talks that appear to have been rescued to some extent by Beckenbaugh.

On Thursday morning, the sides solved a problem that arose regarding the reporting by clubs of hockey-related revenue, and how both sides sign off on the figures at the end of the fiscal year. The union felt the language had been changed without proper notification. That dispute was over in about an hour, but clearly discord was present in the talks.

Another small meeting, the second of the day without union head Donald Fehr, addressed the pension plan. That one lasted just under two hours and marked the last time the sides met this week.

The players’ association held a late Thursday afternoon conference call to initiate its second vote on the disclaimer of interest.

A sense of progress might be why the union didn’t declare the disclaimer Wednesday, but any optimism created after the deadline passed has taken several hits since.

The NHLPA filed a motion in federal court in New York seeking to dismiss the league’s suit to have the lockout declared legal. The NHL sued the union in mid-December, figuring the players were about to submit their own complaint against the league.

But the union argued that the NHL is using the suit “to force the players to remain in a union. Not only is it virtually unheard of for an employer to insist on the unionization of its employees, it is also directly contradicted by the rights guaranteed to employees under … the National Labor Relations Act.”

The court scheduled a status conference for the sides on Monday.

The sides have traded four proposals in the past week – two by each side – but none has gained enough traction. Getting an agreement on a pension plan likely would go a long way toward a deal that would put hockey back on the ice.

Fehr believed a plan for a players-funded pension was established before talks blew up in early December. That apparently wasn’t the case, or the NHL changed its offer regarding the pension in exchange for agreeing to other things the union wanted.

The salary-cap number for the second year of the deal – the 2013-14 season – hasn’t been agreed to, and is another major point of contention. The league is pushing for a $60 million cap, while the union wants it to be $65 million with a floor of $44 million.

In return for the higher cap, players would be willing to forgo a cap on escrow.

Other issues still needing resolution include the maximum length of player contracts, the yearly variance in salary of those individual deals, and how long the CBA should be in effect.

Both sides seem content on it lasting for 10 years, but they had different opinions on whether an opt-out should be allowed to be exercised after seven years or eight.

Last season, the NHL posted record revenues of $3.3 billion. The sides seem likely to agree on a 50-50 split of the pot in any new deal.

The NHL is the only North American professional sports league to cancel a season because of a labor dispute, losing the 2004-05 campaign to a lockout. A 48-game season was played in 1995 after a lockout stretched into January.