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Experts see end to NHL lockout in sight

| Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Negotiations between the NHL and NHLPA continued Thursday at an undisclosed location in New York. (AP)

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is discouraged. Union chief Donald Fehr's players are disappointed.

However, labor experts cannot figure out why the parties in this hockey labor dispute are so doom-and-gloom — especially in the wake of this past week.

“It sounds like they've come together on the main issue,” said James Dworkin, publisher of 50 articles and two books on industrial and labor relations.

The NHL and NHLPA have come together on the “core economic issue” to which Bettman often referred leading to the lockout owners enacted Sept. 15.

Bettman proposed a plan with a 50/50 split of revenue Tuesday. Two days later, the union responded with three proposals, each calling for the same revenue division between owners and players.

Owners want the revenue divided evenly right away. Players are content with a gradual shift away from the 57 percent they received on the last collective bargaining agreement.

That difference does not alter the reality that over the past week the NHL and NHLPA laid out proposals calling for a 50/50 split — even though Bettman said many owners wanted a more favorable percentage, and Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said he was surprised players agreed to the ratio.

Following from afar, labor experts agree there is finally a deal to be made.

“We always say that when parties are using the same language, they are on opposite sides of the bridge, they can see where they want to go, and it's just a matter of getting there,” said Emily Town, a Downtown lawyer with Stember Feinstein Doyle Payne & Kravec.

The NHL reported a record $3.3 billion in revenue last season, though Forbes magazine reported 18 clubs lost money, including the Penguins at about $200,000.

Neither the league nor teams make their financial books public, at least in terms of profits and losses, but Forbes' finding that 60 percent of clubs were in the red could confirm Bettman's stance that “the cost of doing business” under the last labor agreement was no longer agreeable to owners.

Revenue does not equate to profit, and the NHL has challenged the union to note any big business for which employees command better than a 50/50 revenue split without risk.

The union contends that no fan has ever paid for a ticket to see an owner and that any discussion of fair and equal deal-making must include a mandate for owners to pay in full guaranteed contracts.

Simply, labor experts said, the NHL/union dispute boils down to the NHL getting its immediate relief to keep clubs turning a profit and players getting the money they are owed.

“That is the fair compromise for both sides, but the devil is in the details,” said Dworkin, chancellor at Purdue University North Central in Indiana.

Recent history of the 2004-05 canceled season should convince the NHL and union that neither side is “unwilling to have that happen again unless a deal addresses the needs of everybody,” Dworkin said.

“But 50/50, or something similar, is the standard for new agreements with the NFL and NBA, and hockey can get the details of 50/50 done in even a brief time period of a few days,” he said.

The last NHL/NHLPA agreement was 457 pages, but not every word must be approved for camps to open Friday as Bettman said is necessary for a full 82-game season to begin Nov. 2.

Agreement in principle on major issues, then addressing the “nitty-gritty” before a ratification vote, is commonplace in sports labor negotiations, said Town, who represented the Arena Football League's union (AFLPU) in last season's labor dispute.

Penguins union representative Craig Adams said early last week that previous meetings between the NHLPA and NHL “were not wastes of time.”

“We addressed a lot of stuff — not little things but important other issues. There was agreement on a lot of that,” he said, declining to provide specifics. “It's the big stuff that we haven't settled on.”

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in September that neither the NHL nor the union “lacked the resources” to have lawyers work around the clock on another lengthy document that will be the next labor agreement.

Significant structural issues such as length of entry-level and veteran contracts and a disciplinary system already would have been settled before those marathon sessions, he predicted.

Labor experts said a path to the eventual agreement is now clear and that it should lead to meetings this week involving only the sides' key negotiators — bargaining sessions away from the glare of TV cameras' lights.

Penguins fans can recall a similar meeting in a New Jersey hotel banquet room in March 2007.

Surrounded by only pertinent persons, Penguins majority co-owner Ron Burkle and former Gov. Ed Rendell — men with reputations as deal-makers — hammered out an agreement to fund what would become Consol Energy Center.

Two previous negotiating sessions had failed, and the lead-up to that meeting included Penguins officials visiting Kansas City and Las Vegas, and Rendell publicly casting doubt an agreement could be reached.

With the expiration of the Penguins' lease at Mellon Arena and the NHL's mid-March deadline to finalize a schedule looming, public officials and team ownership faced pressure to seal the deal.

“It was contentious, but in the end everybody found a cooler head and it got done,” Rendell said. “That's not unusual in negotiations.”

Rendell joked that neither Bettman nor Fehr could “possibly be a tougher negotiator than Ron Burkle” and offered advice to the respective heads of the NHL and union.

“Generally each side has to understand what the other side's line in the sand is, understand the other's side politics and what the other side can and can't do,” he said. “If you're asking the other side to move, you've got to be willing to move a little.

“From what I heard from Gary and Don this week, it sounds like they're both willing to move to do this deal.”

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-380-5635.

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