Before talks faltered, Blues veteran "was encouraged;" talks resume Wednesday
By LOUIE KORAC
CHESTERFIELD, Mo. -- After last week's emotional roller coaster that saw National Hockey League Players Association executive director Donald Fehr all but disclose that the players and owners were on the cusp of a breakthrough but get shot down by the National Hockey League before concluding his press conference, it was another black eye against a process seemingly spinning its wheels.
But according to Blues veteran Andy McDonald, who was directly involved in last week's negotiations between players and owners that seemed to gain plenty of footage and shed some daylight on the league's third lockout since 1995, the light at the end of the tunnel is near in the aftermath of Thursday's gloom and doom.
"My impression was when I was there (a week ago) Tuesday, the owners really wanted to get a deal done," said McDonald, one of 19 players and six owners involved in intense negotiations that abruptly broke down after three days in New York. "They (the owners) made some significant steps in our direction. I was encouraged. I thought with what happened on that day, it would lead to a deal.
"I left Wednesday around the Board of Governors meeting and after that, they talked again all day Wednesday and that's when things kind of stalled and slowed down and I guess lost momentum. There's definitely a group over there that wants to get a deal done. I think it's the same with the players. This has just dragged on too long. You only hope there hasn't been too much damage and we can get a deal done in the near future."
What may have looked like a bombshell by the league or a re-enactment of Pearl Harbor to fans and the NHLPA after Fehr's promising declaration that the players were in agreement with many of the issues at hand, it was hard to believe that the league would jump at the PA's new proposal immediately. But a flat-out rejection was hardly expected either.
Or was it?
"We knew that was kind of going to happen," McDonald said, "(But) I thought last week with what happened early on in the week, there would be a good chance it would get done. For whatever reason, things broke off. It's kind of disappointing with the way things broke off. The reality is we're a lot closer than we were two weeks ago. I'm still optimistic something can be done really soon."
After a weekend of cooler heads prevailing, talks between the two sides will once again get started on Wednesday at an undisclosed location. It is believed that the NHLPA will be represented once again by a group of players yet to be determined, and the Fehr's (Donald and Steve) and the NHL will be represented by commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly. U.S. Federal mediators Scot Beckenbaugh and John Sweeney will also take part in the meeting after being involved with the two sides two weeks ago before declaring they couldn't help the process.
The NHLPA last week requested federal mediators be included again, which prompted Bettman to tell reporters Thursday: "We're not interested in mediation. We went through it a week and a half ago. It was of no value because of the position of the parties."
When the league's stance changed doesn't matter to the players. McDonald is just glad talks will begin again.
"I'm encouraged. We're meeting again," he said. "There was a lot of negativity after things broke down Thursday. We're back at it again (Wednesday). I'm optimistic how close we were last week that there would be a deal. I hope everybody realizes more damage could be caused to the game and it's just not really worth it."
Last week's rejection by the league surrounded three sticking points that required "yes" answers from the union: the length of the collection bargaining agreement (the NHL proposed 10 years with an opt-out after eight; the PA countered with eight years and a six-year opt-out), term limits on contracts maxed out at five years (seven if resigned by current team) and the transition rules to help teams get under the salary cap. The league is proposing 5/7 on those contracts; the PA proposed a flat eight-year max. It's one point that Daly said is "the hill we will die on."
The sides agreed in principal to transition payments, or in simpler terms, the "make whole" dollars on current contracts when the league upped its offer to $300 million (they were previously offering $211 million and the players were looking for $393 million) but that number was contingent on the players agreeing to the aforementioned three points the league is adamant about.
The league this week canceled two more weeks' worth of games through Dec. 30. That means 42.8 percent of the 2012-13 schedule has been wiped out (or 526 regular season games). Fans' restlessness continues to mount, and with all the public banter about how close the sides are from the PA perspective (although Bettman and Daly both refuted that notion Thursday), one can only wonder how to recapture them once all is said and done.
"You just sympathize with them," McDonald said about all hockey fans. "My thing all along is there never should have been any games missed. Owners and players have done so well, there's no reason for it. There's a lot of things that we could have done differently as a union. I think we'll all look back on it, and I think players down the road will learn from it. ... I really feel for the fans. I don't know what to tell them. There never should have been any games missed, but it is what it is. You have to live with it because I'm part of the union.
"Where the league has been revenue-wise ... I know there's a disparity among teams; there's some things that need to be fixed but the players have done really well themselves. Everyone has done great as a result of the sport and there's no reason why any games should have been missed. There's too big a risk and the game was in such a good spot, especially here in St. Louis. It's just a shame it had to get to this."
In the meantime, skates have been conducted on a regular basis at the Hardees Iceplex, and there have been a good number of Blues players as well as fellow NHLers to keep the pace high, brisk and to the point when/if the season begins, players are ready.
"You have no other choice," McDonald said. "You have to keep yourself ready. Obviously there's a physical fit component to it and mentally as well. Personally, you try and set a timeline. Pick a date when you think things will get started and start preparing yourself for that date and try to block out the rest of it.
"There's a lot of negativity, a lot of ups and downs. You just have to focus on trying to control the things you can control. That right now it's preparing, practicing and working out."