NHL, NHLPA avoid meltdown in negotiations

NEW YORK -- Thursday was seen by some members on both sides as the biggest day of the lockout, a potential make-or-break moment in a contentious, arduous impasse that has already caused huge costs to the NHL and NHLPA in revenue and in fan support.

There were some that feared a potential meltdown of talks Thursday depending on how the league responded to revenue sharing and Make Whole provision offers the NHLPA tabled the night before.

And within those offers on Wednesday night was a strong message from the NHLPA that it felt going from 57 percent to 50 percent of revenues was a big enough concession and it didn’t feel it was right for the players to have to give back a whole lot more in other areas.

Three or four weeks ago, that might have been enough for the league to stomp out in a fury, once again deadening any potential for progress.

Instead, the league responded with its answer Thursday on both revenue sharing and Make Whole -- honoring existing player contracts. While a source says the NHLPA wasn’t impressed by it either, both sides didn’t blow out of the room and hammer each other on the head through the media.

Instead, both NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr said next to nothing in their short media scrums. Only to say the most important words of all at this point: they will meet again tomorrow.

Then, both sides went back to work Thursday night in separate internal meetings for each side, cramming for the next day’s meeting.

That’s called negotiating. There’s an actual back and forth happening. It’s what should have happened a month ago, maybe two months ago, but the pressure of two months’ worth of canceled games has finally pushed each side to stop the posturing and actually have meaningful negotiation.

This could still fall apart, but I’m ready to state that I believe there’s a better chance of a deal getting done than not at this stage.

There’s certainly work to be done. The NHLPA’s Make Whole offer, according to a source, would see the players get to 50-50 of HRR by Year 3 based on "regular growth." In other words, a phase-in framework within a Make Whole approach.

The NHL wants the players to go down to 50-50 in Year 1 within its Make Whole concept. How exactly they bridge that gap remains to be seen.

A source said the NHL made new offers on Thursday not only on revenue sharing and Make Whole, but also on systemic player contract issues. They also increased their total money allocated to a revamped revenue sharing model to north of $200 million, according to the source.

In the big picture, my sense is that the NHLPA feels the pieces could be in place for a deal if the NHL is fully legitimate on Make Whole, is willing to accept the union’s view on more meaningful revenue sharing for the 30 teams and backs off on the many systemic player contract demands it has made.

From the NHL perspective, I don’t think Bettman can go to his owners where the only meaningful concession -- albeit a gigantic one -- is the players’ share going down to 50-50. The owners’ likely response would be that they were promised more than that in this deal.

And so, middle ground needs to be found on Make Whole, revenue sharing and player contract issues.

I wonder if this doesn’t come down to the player contract issues once there’s an agreement on Make Whole and revenue sharing. The league will fight hard to get some "wins" there. The elimination of back-diving deals (front-loaded) is a must for the league, and I don’t think the NHLPA will fight that one too much, but after that, I don’t sense the union willing to give much more in this area. The league will want more.

So lots of work still to be done, but the promising sign in all this is that both sides seem up to the task of trying to persevere through it right now. And that, ladies and gentlemen, we haven’t seen in this entire process.