NHL Players' Association members are scheduled to have internal meetings Thursday morning to consider an offer from owners that seemingly puts the fate of the 2012-13 season in their hands.
After three months of contentious negotiations, owners dropped their demands for changes to free agency and arbitration and then upped their make-whole provision offer to $300 million. In exchange, owners have asked for a 10-year contract, with an opt-out clause after eight seasons.
All of these changes are in conjunction to the players' last offer of agreeing to a 50-50 split in hockey-related revenue. In the previous collective bargaining agreement, players were receiving 57%. Achieving the 50-50 split was the owners' primary objective in this negotiation.
Owners have stuck to their request for a five-year cap on contracts but have included a provision that teams can sign their own players for up to seven years. They have also stuck to their demand for a 5% maximum year-to-year variance on salaries in multiyear contracts. That has been important to owners because they want to stop the practice of teams tacking low salary years on the end of contracts to lower the average salary for cap hit purposes.
Wednesday's nine-hour bargaining session was said to be heated and emotional, but in the light of today, players face the reality that they have a decision to make. It's still possible to play a 56- or 58-game season if a deal is reached soon.
Starting Thursday, this week's players-owners-only format has been dropped and Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players' Association executive director Donald Fehr will be back in the room.
As of 3 p.m. ET, though, the sides had not met face-to-face on Thursday.
The NHLPA has floated the idea of requesting the U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service join the negotiations. The two sides met for two days last with mediators without making any progress.
"They have asked us to consider involving mediators again," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. "We won't make a final judgment on that until we hear what they have to say today."
Preserving their arbitration and unrestricted free agent rights was very important to players because those two contract rights work in tandem to create a strong middle class. General managers don't like to go to arbitration, and the threat of that, coupled with general managers' willingness to pay a higher salary for those players willing to "sell" a year of their potential free agency has resulted in strong second contracts for many players coming out of their entry-level deals. Those two contract rights are important to almost every NHLPA member.
Players had asked last month for $393 million in transition payments, as NHLPA special counsel Steve Fehr calls them. He doesn't like the use of the phrase "make whole" because he believes that more than $500 million is needed to cover losses that players would suffer in existing contracts with the immediate drop of their share from 57% to 50%. Essentially, owners split the difference between their October $211 million offer and the players' pre-Thanksgiving offer. The $300 million includes $50 million in pension payments.
The request for the 10-year CBA is an issue for players because their official position is that they want five years. Donald Fehr has pointed out that in five years, the NHLPA, because of the nature of sports, will have a multitude of new members and it is only fair to give those members a say in what will happen to them in their careers.
Also, the NHLPA doesn't like having this major change thrown into the equation at the 11th hour of negotiations. The owners' last offer was a six-year contract. However, the owners' desire for a 10-year deal was revealed early in the negotiations. The NBA and NFL recently negotiated 10-year CBAs.
Players will have to decide whether this issue is worth risking a season. If the season is canceled, they will lose more than $1 billion in salary.
Plus, while the rank-and-file membership might support the official NHLPA position of a shorter deal being better, their instincts could be to want a longer deal. That would prevent them from having to go through another CBA squabble during their careers.
They don't like the cap on contracts, but the reality is that the majority of players don't receive contracts longer than five years. Those multiyear deals are generally for star players.
Owners have moved enough off their last position to force players to think long and hard about their next move. Players and owners are supposed to get back together Thursday afternoon to continue negotiations.