For the past two months NHLPA executive director Don Fehr has promised the league’s 700-plus players that he would fight for their right to be paid every penny of their existing contracts.
Every step of the way the league’s owners have resisted and as a result the NHL and its players remain in a bitter labor dispute that has cost both sides nearly $1 billion in salary and revenue.
Now the players’ union is faced with a perplexing dilemma. Do players finally make concessions and agree to have a percentage of their salaries placed in escrow?
Or, do they stand firm and run the risk of losing the entire season?
That’s what Fehr and his negotiating committee must decide between now and Wednesday, when the NHL is expecting a new and comprehensive proposal from the players that addresses the league’s immediate concerns.
Since the start of this lockout, Fehr has galvanized the players by insisting that owners honor their existing contracts. Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin has been one of the most vocal supporters in that fight.
“Our head, Donald Fehr, is very well acquainted with our terms and conditions,” Ovechkin said via Russia Beyond the Headlines. “Nobody wants a pay cut or a lower status. Everything in that respect is up to Fehr. We have full confidence in him, but there could be some twists and turns ahead.”
The league certainly hopes so. If nothing else, commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly have stood firm on placing player salaries in escrow.
“We’ve never heard a full proposal from them,” Daly told reporters after Monday’s 90-minute meeting.
“We’ve heard their proposal on economics. They’re still suggesting that they’re moving in our direction on economics. Until we know exactly where they stand on economics ... we think it’s all tied together.
“We’d like to hear it all together.”
From the start, Fehr has demanded a 1.75 percent increase on the $1.883 billion in salaries the players took in last year. The NHL wants that figure reduced to $1.73 in Year One, then increased to $1.82 billion in Year Two, $1.91 billion in Year Three, $2 billion in Year Four and $2.1 billion in Year Five.
In exchange the NHL also wants an immediate 50-50 split in hockey-related revenue, which reached a record $3.3 billion last season but likely will be about half that if the NHL can salvage half a season this year.
If the players come up with a proposal that addresses the owners’ need for a bigger share of revenue, the owners almost certainly will need to make concessions on contract rights.
The NHL would like to see entry-level contracts reduced to two years, unrestricted free agency pushed back to age 28 or eight years of service and all contracts capped at five years.
The owners would probably agree to return to three-year entry-level contracts and push free agency back to 27 years or seven years of service. But it may not – and should not – budge from five-year contract limits, which is a big reason the league is in the shape it finds itself.
If the players are able to craft a comprehensive counter-proposal that addresses some of the owners’ concerns there could be enough traction to have a deal in place by the end of November and a season beginning in mid-December.
If not, the league likely would cancel all games through Dec. 15 and possibly use that same date as a deadline for salvaging any kind of season.