The comments from the media over the last several days following the swapping of proposals between the NHL and NHLPA would leave many fans to think a deal is oh-so-close, and that a slight massaging of details will have the 2012-13 season finally underway in a few short days. The reality, however, is that the two sides are still quite a ways apart – and no amount of cheerleading from the press will close that gap. Absent a move from one side toward the other, no one should get their hopes up for a November 2 start of the season. If anything, this might be a good time to find some books you’ve wanted to read, movies you’ve wanted to watch, or hobbies you’ve wanted to take up, and settle in for a long winter’s rest – because this may drag on for a while yet.
The biggest drag right now is the view each side has on where HRR should be, and the resulting impact on salaries. The owners continue to demand an immediate jump to a 50/50 split, while the players continue to ask “why does it have to be immediate?” The players have the right idea in that a 50/50 split can be achieved over time, but it will have to get there both by year and in aggregate over the CBA; right now, none of the proposals accomplish either. At the same time, the players continue to talk about ’12-13 salaries being paid in full – as if escrow shouldn’t apply. The reality is that even under the 57/43 split for the players, there was never any guarantee that the players would get the full face value of their contracts (and based on history, it’s more likely the players would lose some fraction of it via escrow). As long as both sides remain dug in on those two points (and each looks like it’s dug in for good), it’s going to be hard to make progress toward a deal.
Of all the surprising things that have happened in this negotiation, the most surprising might be the NHL’s willingness to up its offer in the absence of any new proposal from the NHLPA. This plays right into the hands of Donald Fehr, who showed in his years representing the MLBPA that this is how he does negotiations. The NHL’s repeated moves have been interpreted by some as coming out of desperation or a need to salvage the season and avoid more damage with sports fans; however, part of this might also be the result of the ridiculously low offer the NHL originally put out.
As we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks, the NHL is engaged in a public relations war with the players and is looking for ways to make itself look better (and has succeeded in this respect). It wouldn’t be that surprising to see the NHL come out and say, “we’ve moved much farther from our initial offer, we’ve made repeated offers trying to get a deal done and the season started, don’t blame us – blame the players because they’ve repeatedly failed to make counteroffers when we’ve asked.” It also wouldn’t be that surprising to see fans buy that argument and turn against the players even more.
Are the two sides really that close? If the goal is to “get a deal done and start playing again,” then yes – they may not be that far off. If the goal is to “get a deal done right that works both short-term and long-term for both sides,” then both sides are still light years away. The better question that the media should be asking is, “does either side really want a deal that works short-term and long-term?” That would involve looking at each side’s proposals and poking as many holes as possible. No one in the media has even hinted at attempting this; the entire focus has been on “let’s get a deal done and start playing” and hoping that the final deal struck magically fixes everything. The last thing fans should want is a new deal that has all kinds of problems that we spend the next 5-6 years complaining about – and yet, it seems like way too many people are willing to sacrifice “do it right” for “do it right now.”
Could things change? Sure they could – but with about 24 hours remaining to get a deal done by the NHL’s “drop dead” date for a full season, and with no talks scheduled, I’m as optimistic as I have been throughout this entire process: not very. If tomorrow passes and more games get cancelled, it will be interesting to see how each side reacts. Either way, it’s probably best to assume the worst and then be surprised when both sides finally reach a deal than to pretend they’ll “see the light” and then be shocked when they don’t.