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Siegel: The bizarre week of CBA talks

Jonas Siegel
12/7/2012 1:58:47 AM
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NEW YORK – Three bizarre days in the biggest city in the world.

How else to describe the most recent set of CBA talks between the NHL and NHL players association? A rollercoaster with no safety harnesses began at the Westin Times Square shortly after the lunch hour on Tuesday afternoon.

Tuesday

Beginning at approximately 2 p.m. eastern on the third floor of the imposing midtown Manhattan hotel – located at the corner of 8th and 43rd – six owners (Jeremy Jacobs, Larry Tannenbaum, Jeffrey Vinik, Ron Burkle, Mark Chipman) sat across the table from 16 players, included among them Sidney Crosby, Ryan Miller, Jonathan Toews and Shane Doan. At the request of the league, players' boss Donald Fehr and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman would be absent for the proceedings. They would be stationed in a pair of nearby rooms, briefed on the talks at various intervals.

Lasting five and a half hours, the first set of meetings offered the two sides an opportunity to voice their collective positions, search for common understandings of where the process was and where it needed to go to move forward.

Following that fruitful first session, the two parties broke for dinner, the owners departing the hotel, the players remaining on site. The two sides resumed their talks less than two hours later, continuing on until shortly after midnight. Good vibes were reinforced by the co-operative appearance of two figures, emerging side-by-side for the first time, seemingly content, an unusual air of conciliation hovering around their presence. "In some ways I'd say it might be the best day we've had," noted players association special counsel Steve Fehr. "Obviously I appreciate the efforts of the players," added NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly.

Hopeful tones seemed to be blossoming.

Wednesday

At 11 a.m. that morning, a few blocks from the players' position at the Westin – eighth and 41st – the Board of Governors gathered for a two hour meeting at the Proksauer Law offices, a spring in their step as they exited the proceedings. "We feel good about the information we got," Columbus Blue Jackets President Bill Davidson told reporters.

All appeared on the right course.

Reconvening with the players that afternoon, the two parties exchanged proposals as the winds of optimism began to dwindle. They deliberated, separated for caucuses, and deliberated some more before separating again for dinner. Tensions were on the rise as the negotiating factions decreased in size. The owners begrudgingly upped their stake in the make-whole provision to $300 million (up from $200 million), even at the behest of some in their party. According to the words of Bettman a day later, the union's reaction was more or less a shrug of the shoulders, a silent acceptance that stoked a fire under the already emotional owners. Bruins boss Jeremy Jacobs was even seen in heated conversation with Daly outside the meeting room and had reportedly got into a tense verbal exchange with Miller, the Sabres goaltender. Apparently "beside themselves" at the players' reaction, the owners were ready to walk out, but according to Bettman, were convinced to stay and move the process along.

The two sides continued until shortly before 1 a.m.

Then in rather abrupt fashion, Winnipeg Jets defenceman Ron Hainsey appeared before the media. "We had a series of meetings today, a very candid discussion and we plan on meeting again [Thursday]," he said. "Thank you very much." Daly showed himself shortly thereafter, echoing similar sentiments, the existence of "good, candid dialogue", while adding the presence of some "critical open issues". Later that night, details began to emerge from the league's offer, most notably the term of the proposed CBA (10 years), term limits on player contracts (five years, seven for own players), unchanged rules to salary arbitration and unrestricted free agency, and the aforementioned increase to the make-whole provision or transition payments as the union likes to call them. The player pension plan also reared a prominent head in the conversations, perhaps at the surprise of the league.

Thursday

Expectations were that the parties would gather for more talks at noon, following a set of internal conversations. The union insisted that owner-player dynamic cease. Donald Fehr's presence was desired in the room. Acceding to the players' request, Bettman was also welcomed back into the conversation.

Noon evolved into shortly after 5 p.m. when Daly and NHL Counsel Bob Batterman returned to meet with the Fehr brothers and players. Bettman was conspicuously absent. After about an hour, Daly and Batterman exited the hotel once again, with Daly telling reporters that he was unsure if they were to return for more talks.

Word circulated in the hotel less than an hour later that Donald Fehr would be holding a press conference. A buzz grew amidst the unknown of what his remarks would entail.

Appearing confident in the small meeting room on the lobby floor of the Westin, Fehr was joined by a thrall of players, including Sidney Crosby, Brad Richards and Shane Doan, all prominently standing in support. His comments were broadcast live on TSN, TSN Radio and TSN.ca.

Fehr revealed in short order what the players' most recent proposal concerned, notably an eight-year CBA (with an opt-out after the sixth year), eight-year term limits on player contracts and a proposition for handling the league's much-hated (but still signed) back-diving contracts. A pension plan agreement was seemingly reached. With a jump to his step, Fehr said the players were in "complete agreement on dollars" with the owners. He said there was little reason that a deal would not be reached in the immediate future.

Assembled players were suddenly (and unusually) available to the media for comment.

"I'm trying not to get too optimistic," Crosby said, upbeat in his manner. "I've been optimistic at different points in this. I can say that of any point this is by far the best deal we've had. There's no reason why this can't be good for everyone."

Asked if he was hopeful or confident, the face of the league opted for hopeful.
 
Minutes later, word came from union representation that D. Fehr would return with further comments. The unknown was again scintillating. A general feeling of hope radiated from the players.

As the wait pressed on, Steve Fehr emerged in the room, sporting jeans, a sweater fit for winter and white headphones. Breaking through the crowd of cameras, Fehr called for Hainsey, who stepped down from the stage. Whispering a message to Hainsey, he stepped away.

Moments later, Fehr's brother appeared again. Donald Fehr indicated that his brother Steve had received a voicemail from the league (Daly specifically), stating that the moves made by the players were not acceptable and that the deal or parts of the deal were off the table. "It looks like this is not going to be resolved in the immediate future," Fehr said.

Hope had quickly molded into befuddlement. Only moments after Crosby sounded "hopeful" and the union head boasted confidently of the potential for a looming deal, the bubble burst.

Reality became even more difficult to track when it became clear that Bettman and his second-in-charge, Daly, were returning to the hotel to speak, ironically at the very same podium Fehr had just opined from on two occasions.

With an entourage that included Daly, Batterman and other league officials, Bettman strode into the meeting room with an impassioned presence. The NHL commissioner lit into Fehr and the players association for implying that a deal was imminent, when in their mind a large gulf still remained. He spoke with fire, decrying the players' reaction to what his side perceived as multiple givebacks, most notably in the form of $100 million added to the make-whole provision. With Daly at his side, Bettman made it known that he was "disappointed beyond belief", and stressed continuously that the league's offer was a "package deal", not the sort to be picked apart for suitable treasures. He reasoned that his owners were insistent on the CBA term, player contract term limits and other compliance issues.

The offer he said was now off the table.

Questioned on the threat of yet another season lost to a lockout, Bettman said "I'm not happy about this, but I've got to play the hand that I'm dealt". As players stewed quietly in the back of the room, Bettman brushed off the notion of "drop-dead dates" and said another year would be in jeopardy only if they could not have a "season with integrity". A 48-game schedule was the unofficial cut-off.

After fielding a series of questions, he and his cavalry stormed out. Pausing briefly in the lobby for a brief conversation, the league departed. Bettman, Daly and Batterman continued their chatter on the escalator descending back toward the New York streets.

The surreal only continued.

While they'd been muzzled almost without incident throughout, a stream of statements from four owners involved in the most recent talks surfaced. "We made substantial movement on our end quickly, but unfortunately that was not met with the same level of movement from the other side," read the statement from Penguins owner Ron Burkle.  "I came here optimistic that we could find a solution," added Jets owner Mark Chipman. "Regrettably, we have been unable to close the divide on some critical issues that we feel are essential to the immediate and long-term health of our game."

"I must admit that I was shocked at how things have played out over the last 48 hours," Larry Tannenbaum, chairman of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment noted. "I am very disappointed and disillusioned. Had I not experienced this process myself, I might not have believed it. Like all hockey fans, I am hopeful this situation can be resolved as soon as possible. I miss our game."

The bizarre week was over. The emotional rollercoaster offered unseen twists and turns. Where the process moves next is beyond the scope of imagination.

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