Stunning Offer From NHL

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Oct. 16) – The conciliatory note that all hockey fans have been craving was sung by Gary Bettman late this morning at a downtown office tower. If the NHL Players Association chooses to hum along, the game could be back on the ice in 17 days.

Bettman stunned the usual throng of reporters when he ambled to a microphone at 12:45 p.m  and announced the NHL had offered the NHLPA a 50/50 split in Hockey Related Revenue. Jaws were close to the floor as the commissioner made his declaration at ground level of 20 Bay St. – two blocks south of the Air Canada Centre – where the Players Association office is located. No person beyond those directly involved with Bettman anticipated anything of the sort. Almost universally, it was felt the players would have to table an up-graded proposal in order to kick-start fruitful negotiation.

Instead, it was the league that came forward.

As you might imagine, there are strings attached – primarily, the contingency that players accept the offer in time to conduct a full 82-game schedule beginning on Nov. 2. Bettman was non-committal when asked if the league would consider an abbreviated schedule, but today’s scenario opens up a bevy of possibilities that did not exist beforehand.

Bettman said that a new Collective Bargaining Agreement would have to be in place within 10 days so that NHL teams could summon players from Europe and conduct a one-week training camp. To complete the Stanley Cup final before July 1 – an absolute must – each team would have to play one additional game every five weeks to compress the original schedule.      

NHL COMMISSIONER GARY BETTMAN ADDRESSES REPORTERS IN DOWNTOWN TORONTO LATE THIS MORNING, REVEALING AN OFFER TO THE PLAYERS FOR A 50/50 SPLIT IN REVENUE.

Though he was part of innumerable labor hassles during his tenure as head of the Major League Baseball players union, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr had difficulty maintaining a poker-face today. While gathered with the same group of reporters, 20 minutes after Bettman, it was obvious Fehr had been taken by surprise.

As expected, he refrained from commenting on the league overture, responding: “Our hope, after we review this, is that there’s a feeling on the players’ side it will be a proposal from which we can negotiate and try and reach a conclusion.” Given Fehr’s evolving reputation as a deal-maker, this was more than idle chatter.

Legitimate hope is now effectively part of the process.

NHLPA EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR DONALD FEHR RESPONDS TO MEDIA QUERY THIS AFTERNOON.

There are a number of factors that may have induced the NHL to soften its initial stance with the players. Among them, clearly, is the league’s desire not to scrap the Bridgestone Winter Classic on Jan. 1 at Michigan Stadium. More than 100,000 fans will descend on Ann Arbor for the outdoor game between Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings.

Of equal urgency to the NHL is the widely acclaimed 24/7 documentary series, produced by the American cable outlet Home Box Office. According to a source, HBO has informed the league it must be up and running by the start of November – at the very latest – for the series to be packaged and shown in its required interval leading up to the Jan. 1 event.

Another push may well have come from league sponsors, which met with Bettman and Co. last week. In the realm of public perception, the NHL has done itself no favor by repeatedly invoking work stoppages.

Bridgestone Tire commits millions of dollars to the annual outdoor classic and has naming rights to the arena in Nashville. Tim Horton’s, the doughnut/coffee emporium traded on the Toronto and New York stock exchanges, sponsors the Saturday-night skills competition at the NHL All-Star Game – bound for Columbus in January. Verizon Wireless has a big chunk of the NHL’s TV package with NBC. Geico Insurance, Pepsi, Enterprise Rent-a-Car, Scotiabank and Kraft Foods are among the league’s other prime sponsors. None can be overly pleased with the lockout.

Whatever the case, Bettman’s enduring image in this country as a heel likely improved with today’s announcement. Though he retains the eight required ownership ballots to veto any counter-offer from the players, it appears the commissioner’s appetite to cut a deal is genuine.

NHL COMMISSIONER GARY BETTMAN LEAVES THE NHLPA OFFICE TOWER THIS AFTERNOON WITH MEDIA RELATIONS MANAGER GARY MEAGHER (TO HIS RIGHT).

Potential stumbling blocks remain.

Though the players will almost-surely embrace the league’s objective of a 50/50 revenue split over the length of a minimum six-year deal, the full value of existing contracts must be guaranteed. More than one-third of NHL skaters are under contract beyond this season. A prime concession from the league is the continuity of player arbitration rights. In the NHL’s initial offer of July 13, arbitration was to have been eliminated.

Acceptance by the NHLPA of the proposed economic split would still result in a major victory for Bettman, given that players received 57 percent of Hockey Related Revenue in the prior CBA. But, the players – with an average career of roughly four seasons in the NHL – know they stand to lose a lot more than money if the arenas remain locked. More images from my trusty Nikon:

BETTMAN ANNOUNCES NEW NHL PROPOSAL (ABOVE) WITH DEPUTY COMMISSIONER BILL DALY (IN YELLOW TIE) AND MEDIA RELATIONS MANAGER GARY MEAGHER BEHIND HIM.

NHLPA EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR DONALD FEHR RESPONDS TO LEAGUE PROPOSAL.

WILL THERE SOON BE HOCKEY AT 60 BAY ST. (ABOVE AND BELOW)?

AIR CANADA CENTRE (ABOVE-LEFT) ON GLORIOUS AUTUMN AFTERNOON IN TORONTO.

          

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