NHL Labour Woes
EXCLUSIVE: Donald Fehr explains players' side in NHL labour dispute 0
NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr speaks to the media with NHLers in Toronto, Ont., Oct. 18, 2012. (STAN BEHAL/QMI Agency)
Twenty-four hours after the latest breakdown in talks between the NHL and the players union, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr explained to QMI Agency why it might be a long lockout.
He wasn't surprised the owners turned down all three of the proposals the players made Thursday and, during a exclusive one-on-one interview late Friday, he maintained NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners won't be happy until the players fork over more money.
Here is an edited transcript of Fehr's discussion:
QMI: Were you very disappointed in what happened Thursday and the way the meeting transpired?
FEHR: "I try to not get excited and not get disappointed. I've learned from long experience that all that does is burn my hormones. You sort of have to ride every day, take it where it is. If works out good, that's a good day. If it doesn't work out so good, that's a day that isn't so good and you try to figure out a way to do a better one tomorrow. That's what I try to do. It's clear the players are really disappointed. Here we are after massive concessions (in 2004-05) in the billions of dollars, followed by revenue growth that Gary and the owners have taken a lot of credit for, that the response is to say, 'We should have another round of concessionary bargaining and you should give us back more billions of dollars.' That oversimplifies the negotiations a little bit but not very much. The fact the players are willing to negotiate something in which they take a lower share going forward was a major move in the owners' direction and the owners have only moved away from the players. It's a disappointing set of circumstances. I don't go in for the very dramatic 'I am very disappointed' press conferences that other people engage in."
QMI: The players know they're going to take concessions, do you think the owners realize that?
FEHR: "I have no idea. You'd have to talk to individual owners about that. The reason I say that is the following: We have a rule that any player who wants to can come to a negotiating meetings and more than 100 have so far. We have calls right before meetings to clear positions and we have 100 players on the phone. There's no piece of paper in this office that the players can't go see. The second thing is, if you want to make a deal, it's pretty hard, I think, to come in and say, 'What we want is, very significant salary concessions.' (Talking) lots and lots and lots of money, and at the same time the things which are very valuable to players in terms of their individual contracting: Free agency, restricted free agency, salary arbitration, how you structure contracts -- which were the tradeoff last time for the billions of dollars in concessions that were made. 'We want that to.' I would just ask you, and you can ask your readers, what is the articulated reason for seeking these massive concessions that anybody knows about other than, 'We want them, 'cause we want them, and because basketball got them.' It's one thing to say it's because Franchise X has had some financial issues. Everybody knows about Phoenix. It's quite something else to say part of the deal is we should be lowering the salary costs of the Maple Leafs. Yet, that's their proposal. How do you deal with that?"
QMI: Is that what you're trying to figure out?
FEHR: "Well you get up every day and try to find an agreement that will get you there, but I'm just trying to give you a sense of the atmosphere as best I can.'
QMI: Did Gary Bettman tell you the last offer Tuesday was take-it-or-leave-it?
FEHR: "All I can tell you is that my sense in the meeting (Thursday): They reviewed our proposals. It took them 12 or 15 minutes, said they rejected them, said their offer on Tuesday was their very best offer and that outside of what he called 'minor tweaks' that was it. He said this in front of 19 players. When I said, 'So, a tweak means something small and insubstantial' or words to that effect, he said 'Yes.' That's sort of the way it ends. Except Gary said at the end of the meeting if the players were prepared to accept their offer in its entirety, minor tweaks, I could call him about the 'make whole' provision which has players paying players for the reduced salaries in the first two years. I just have to go on the basis of what I heard."
QMI: Were you upset the league took your proposals, looked at them for 12-to-15 minutes and dismissed them?
FEHR: "I don't get upset. I don't get excited. It's just another indication that this is going to be fairly long road."
QMI: The players who were in the room got a fairly good look at where the bargaining stands didn't they? It's a glimpse for them to see the difficulties you're having.
FEHR: "As I said before, all our meetings are open to players, happy to have them there, encourage them to be there, fly them at union expense. It's their contract, their union, their life and their future. Of course they have a right to be there, encourage them to be there and I hope they get as involved as they can."
QMI: Did you give any thought to bargaining off their latest proposal?
FEHR: "We thought we were, apparently not."
QMI: So you have a different position of what you presented than what Bettman characterized?
FEHR: "Given what their position was it was clear that at least for purposes of (Thursday's) proceedings, we either say, 'Gary, we agree or we don't.' "
QMI: If the NHL doesn't move off its past offer and threatens to cancel the season, what are your options?
FEHR: "There are a number of things that if the players became persuaded ... would be taken into consideration and evaluated. But, those are things I hope that I don't have to consider."
QMI: At the end of the day what are you hoping you will be able to achieve once this is over?
FEHR: "I don't think about this being over. What I think about is trying to get this finished and trying to get an agreement that the players are satisfied with, they can be proud of, that can stabilize the industry and allow us to move forward. I don't believe, the players don't believe, and I don't think most of the world believes that everything is perfect in hockey except the players get paid too much. We were trying to address a bunch of those things with revenue-sharing and elsewhere. Hopefully, there will eventually be an agreement done and when that's done, and I'm sure it will be because I know the resolve of the players, that it will be one that they think is fair, appropriate and balances the equation. The point is to get it done and get the season started."
QMI: There has to be something fair and equitable here that can satisfy both sides.
FEHR: "I would have thought so. I have my own views of fair and equitable. Somebody who was knowledgeable would like more accord in our views than theirs'. But so far the owners position seems to be: Players get paid too much because they get paid too much because they get paid too much. If you say it often enough, it's sort of there and that nothing else comes into the equation."
QMI: You wish they had made that 50-50 offer in July. Did the first offer galvanize the players?
FEHR: "The first offer, in our judgment and the players, was so over the top, so backward and so in your face, if you're asking me, 'Did that create a mood?' Sure. Of course it did. Couldn't be avoided. And, the movement away from it has been slow and grudging. In all of the important matters, whether it's players' share, contracting rights or any of that stuff, the owners still want very large concessions. When I say to them or anybody else, 'What is in this contract proposal for the players? What is it that they are willing to do that is of any magnitude?' and I get no answers. That's not because somebody is hiding an answer, it's because there isn't one."
QMI: How long are you willing to wait to get a deal done? Are you willing to wait a whole season if that's what it takes?
FEHR: "Players will make all of those decisions and I never speculate about stuff like that. I have never my entire career. I think it's counter-productive ... You can judge the level of the resolve just by talking to the players and listening to them. I'm not concerned about the unity and resolve of the players."
QMI: Why does the league not want to honour the deals that were signed?
FEHR: "They want to pay less money. That's all. It's really very simple: 'We've agreed to pay to the dollar all the contracts we've signed.' We've now decided that's more money than we'd like to pay.' The reason we made the last proposal the way we did was simply because they want to move toward 50-50. The players have already indicated they are willing to do that over time. The question is: Should you agree to honour the contracts you signed between now and then? Players think that's a straight-forward thing to do and not an unusual thing to do. It's sort of the way everybody does business."
QMI: What's your message to fans who have spent the past couple of days calling players "greedy" after the 50-50 offer from the league?
FEHR: "It's pretty hard to treat seriously the notion that the athletes, who are the only people who anybody comes to watch, that they would be greedy in the face of a 24% reduction in their pay last time; billions of dollars went to the owners, not the players; seven years of record revenues that was more than anybody thought. The result of all that success is for the owners to say, 'OK, now we want to renegotiate all the contracts again and we want to lower them.' My message to the fans is: I don't think that characterization hits the facts very well. Hockey players are pretty down-to-earth people. That's why fans like and identify with them. They want to do the right thing. The right thing here happens to be proceeding in a way which is not merely, 'Oh the owners asked for billions of dollars I guess we have to give it to them because who are we? Hockey players.' "
QMI: Do you remain hopeful the sides will be able to sit down and hammer out an agreement?
FEHR: "We're available at anytime. Where the commissioner left it was: (Don't call) unless you're prepared to tell me you'll accept everything that's on the table ... (or) if you want you can call me about that 'make whole' provision. There's no point. What am I supposed to do if I believe him?"