Give the players credit, they have shown a remarkable restraint in the early stages of negotiations for a new NHL collective bargaining agreement.
Far more restraint than many expected — and frankly, more restraint than was probably warranted — when the NHL Players’ Association resumed talks with the NHL in New York on Wednesday, meeting for the first time since the owners threw down the gauntlet last Friday with list of draconian demands that sent shockwaves throughout the hockey world.
After the owners proposed dropping of the players’ share of league revenues from 57 percent to 46 percent, eliminating signing bonuses, limiting contracts to five years, pushing back unrestricted free agency until after 10 years of service in the league and extending entry-level contracts from three years to five, there was more than a little apprehension about how the NHLPA would respond.
The players didn’t return to the bargaining table with an equally absurd list of their own demands. They didn’t even summarily dismiss the owners’ initial proposal, even though no one objectively looking at that demeaning offer would have blamed them a bit had they responded that way.
Instead, the NHLPA took the high road. The players recognized that they have public sentiment on their side at this point after the owners went so over the top in their initial proposal, and they wisely remained calm and measured in their response. With a large contingent of 15 players joining NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr in the session, the players showed their resolve and unity. But they also stressed that the players, like the fans, want more than anything to make sure that no more games are lost to another lockout just seven years after an entire season was wiped out when the owners shut down the league to install the salary cap system those same owners now want to change so radically.
“I think everybody’s expecting us to say how upset and disappointed we were in there, but it’s a negotiation,” New York Rangers forward Brandon Dubinsky told the Sporting News after Wednesday’s meeting. “That was their starting point.
“We just wanna find a way to make this right, between the players and the league, and I’m confident that we’ll do that,” Dubinsky added. “There hasn’t been any hostility or anger or anything like that in the meetings that we’ve had. It’s all been cordial and informational and just about the two sides taking the information from one another, and trying to work toward one common goal. And that’s making a deal that we don’t lose any hockey.”
Instead of righteous indignation that may have been justifiable but not productive, the players sought more information to try to understand exactly what message the owners were trying to send with their extreme initial proposal.
“It’s going to take some time to get in depth and understand those,” Canucks center Manny Malhotra told NHL.com. “It’s a long process, so instead of getting wrapped up emotionally and flying off the handle, it makes far more sense to be educated in what they’re trying to propose and understanding it in great detail to make sure we know what to counter with.”
After the owners gave fans a reason to fear another extended work stoppage, the players’ restraint in response may be enough to walk some back in off the ledge.
There’s still a long way to go however, and still plenty of reason for concern. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman didn’t do much to allay those fears on Wednesday, as he stood by that controversial initial offer as the basis for any further discussion.
“They’re proposals that we believe need serious consideration for us to move forward,” Bettman told reporters after Wednesday’s meeting.
Bettman probably had to stand by those proposals publicly, at least initially. That’s part of the process in negotiations like these. But he has to also know most of those changes proposed on Friday are complete non-starters. For real progress to be made in these talks and to save the upcoming season, far more reasonable proposals will have to be offered.
The players have shown they can stay calm and reasonable even in the face of extreme provocation. Now it’s time for the owners to show the same consideration for the players, for the fans, and for the game.
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