It was important to the players that the NHL made the next move.
The league did exactly that with Tuesday’s surprise offer to the NHLPA that would split league revenues 50-50. Fans couldn’t help but get excited by the first real movement since negotiations started. One agent said he even fielded calls from players outside the NHL wondering whether the lockout was over.
But the NHL’s offer was met with cautious optimism by NHL players, with Blues forward David Backes explaining why he’s leaning heavily on the cautious side.
Mostly because there was so much ground to make up between the two sides.
"Their first offer was over a 20 percent pay cut. If you take the average worker in the U.S. making $50,000 and you come into work tomorrow and your boss says, 'Hey, the company is doing well; we need to cut your salary down $10,000.' Everyone’s initial reaction would be, 'Say, what?'" Backes told ESPN The Magazine on Tuesday. "'And on top of the salary reduction -- your two weeks' vacation, we’ve reduced that to four days, and you’re not eligible for a pay raise for five years.' You’re sitting there going, 'This is insanity.'"
Backes, who is on the NHLPA's negotiating committee, explained that the league’s second offer was only marginally better. So the players still didn’t have anything to grasp on to and negotiate.
“Guys were flabbergasted; there wasn’t anything to even nibble on,” he said.
Then came Tuesday’s offer from the league. To the players, it’s not necessarily a final solution but something definitely to get things seriously started.
“Their recent offer was kind of like saying to that guy [making $50,000], we’re not going from 50 to 42, it’s more like $50,000 to $45,000, and there’s potential for you to make the rest up if the company does really well,” Backes said. “Maybe that’s more appetizing than 40 or 42.”
But, it’s still a cut.
And players contacted Tuesday afternoon and evening were still trying to figure out exactly how they can take a 13 percent decrease in player salaries without a rollback or losing money in escrow. They’re also figuring out the long-term ramifications that come when you limit contract lengths to five years and delay free agency until a player is 28 years old. Each one of these secondary issues comes with a financial sacrifice.
The NHLPA’s negotiating committee held a conference call at 5 p.m. ET Tuesday, and all these topics were discussed. Tampa Bay’s B.J. Crombeen was on that call discussing the league’s offer.
“We’re going to be working around the clock for the next few days really understanding it and dissecting it,” Crombeen told ESPN The Magazine. “The plan in the next day or two, there is going to be a counter-proposal.”
Crombeen’s biggest concern with the latest offer? When it’s compared to the last collective bargaining agreement, players continue to make all the concessions, despite the significant movement from the league’s previous offers.
“It’s nice to see they’re getting closer,” Crombeen said. “There’s a lot more than meets the eye. It’s not a clear-cut 50-50 deal. There’s significant rollback. There’s a longer time to free agency. These are all concessions we’re making. ... Guys are definitely encouraged that things are moving. They’re willing to talk to us and make a proposal to us. But there’s caution with our optimism. It’s not something we think we’re ready to sign on to.”
As a veteran of 17 seasons, Jamie Langenbrunner has seen his share of negotiations. He’s been a player representative. He was on the NHLPA’s search committee that recommended hiring Donald Fehr to replace the ousted Paul Kelly. He’s currently on the NHLPA’s negotiating committee.
When he heard about the NHL’s offer this afternoon, his immediate response was to wait and see before getting too excited. On the surface, it looked like a positive step in the right direction, but he believes there’s still work to do.
“I can remember back in ’04 when we gave the 24 percent rollback and we thought we were guaranteed we were going to play again. Then nothing happened,” he said during a Tuesday afternoon phone conversation. “When you look into the details [of the NHL’s current offer] a little more, there’s obviously some things that are going in the other’s favor and things that you have to look at and see the magnitude of those decisions.”
But even with the healthy skepticism that comes with years of experience, there wasn’t a player who didn’t echo the opinion of Islanders forward Brad Boyes, another member of the NHLPA’s negotiating committee: It’s a step forward.
This offer can only be seen as a positive, and it gives both sides something to work off moving forward. Instead of talking about canceling more games this week, both sides are trying to figure out how to get the season started in early November with a full 82-game schedule. That seemed like an absolute long shot Tuesday morning.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” Boyes wrote in an e-mail to ESPN The Magazine. “There are still significant givebacks and concessions from the players in this new proposal but it is definitely their first serious offer.”