June 7, 2012

Fischler Report: Bettman weighs in on NHL's next CBA

By Stan Fischler

Gary Bettman says he is “looking forward to meetings with the Players’ Association.” The goal, says the commish, “is to reach a Collective Bargaining Agreement that can take the game and the business to even higher levels than have been reached over the past seven seasons.” 

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks to the media prior to the start of the Stanley Cup finals. (Getty Images)

“The union is now prepared to begin talks and we’re in the process of trying to set up dates.”

The following are CBA points addressed by Bettman:

NEGATIVE PRESS SPECULATION:

“I don’t understand both the speculation and the degree of negativity that it connotes considering we, meaning the League and the Players’ Association, have yet to have a substantive discussion on what we may each be looking for in Collective Bargaining.”

WHY SOME MEDIA TYPES BELIEVE A WORK STOPPAGE IS INEVITABLE:  

“If somebody is suggesting it, it’s either because there’s something in the water, people still have the NBA and the NFL on the brain, or they’re just looking for news on a slow day.  It is nothing more than speculation at this point. There can’t be any substance to it because there haven’t been any substantive conversations.”

A SHORTER CBA:  

“We had originally agreed, coming out of the work stoppage, this would be a six-year deal.  

The Players Association at the time was concerned about how they would like the system.  So we agreed if they wanted to shorten it to four years, they could. We also agreed that if they liked the system, they could extend it a year.”

“There are probably a host of things, from a day-to-day standpoint at least, that both we and the Players’ Association need to focus on. Seven years is a long time for a deal to be in place.  During that time we’ve seen the game grow.  

We’ve seen incredible competitive balance. We’ve seen revenues set records each year.  But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t going to be adjustments that each of us want to look at.  

I don’t think it was ever contemplated that the agreement would ever be more than seven years.”

BOB GOODENOW vs. DONALD FEHR:  

“If you go back in history, one of the reasons we wound up where we did, we had told the Executive Director (Goodenow), at least four years in advance, the systematic problems that had become obvious to us at the time, and we were struggling mightily for a long period of time.  

At that point the Union was aware of it and chose to do nothing about it. We’re in a completely different situation.

There’s a new Executive Director who has gotten himself up to speed, new people, new relationships.  

Time will tell how this all sorts out. I’m hopeful that it sorts out easily because labor peace is preferable to the alternative.”

BERGER PERCEIVES SOME CBA OPTIMISM

While pessimists believe that an NHL-NHLPA war is inevitable next September, an occasional optimist emerges from the mist with a saner view.

One such media type is our pal, Howard Berger, who has been touring with the Cup Final round. â€‹His blog, Berger Bytes, has become one of the most reliable and rational of our daily puck commentaries.

After watching Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr in action at The Rock in Newark, Berger offers the following missive of hope:

As commissioner Gary Bettman pointed out on Wednesday night, it isn’t plausible to characterize the climate between the National Hockey League and the NHL Players Association before actual talks begin on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

But, neither does it appear reasonable for either side to shut down the game for any length of time.

Bettman, as expected, guarded any CBA discussion in his Stanley Cup news conference at the Prudential Center, but he openly scoffed at the widely-held belief that another work-stoppage – with American Thanksgiving as a resumption deadline – is in the cards.

“I don’t understand both the speculation and the degree of negativity,” he said. “If somebody is suggesting [the probability of a lockout], it’s either because there’s something in the [drinking] water; people still have the NBA and NFL [labor issues] on the brain, or they’re just looking for news on a slow day.”

Slow day; fast day, or no day at all, this is not the tone of response Bettman would have issued in late-May 2004… not with Bob Goodenow as Executive Director of the NHLPA and not without the salary cap promised to expansion teams in the late’90s and early-2000s.

When Calgary and Tampa Bay squared off for the Stanley Cup – and even more-so during the World Cup tournament three months later – an air of hopelessness pervaded the 2004-05 NHL season.

Everyone braced for a lengthy work stoppage and tacitly understood that Bettman and the owners would keep arena doors closed until the players – and Goodenow, in particular – were brought to their knees.

Whether or not the lockout that obliterated the 2004-05 schedule and playoffs proved beneficial is a matter of opinion, but the owners did not hesitate in granting Bettman an extension when his contract next came up for renewal.

Goodenow, who Bettman despised -- professionally and personally -- was eliminated from the process, though not before years of unyielding, intractable and highly-proficientwork on behalf of the players.

Such adjectives have long applied to Goodenow’s successor, Donald Fehr, formerly head of the Major League Baseball Players Association, yet a man that Bettman seems to at least respect; perhaps even admire.

That’s why a number of hockey observers anticipate some bumpy negotiations, but a resolution that will allow for a full slate of games next season.

Beyond the many logical reasons to keep business open, the appetite to “conquer and destroy” isn’t nearly what it was in 2004.

In that absence – and with the game moving forward in revenues, salaries, sponsorship and TV numbers -- the prevailing environment is more amenable to productive bargaining.

As it pertains to the laudable, though pie-in-the-sky notion of 30 profitable teams, the league is savvy enough not to negotiate on that basis.

Of the four major professional sports in North America, only the NFL is in the black across the board – primarily because of betting and unparalleled TV revenue. Baseball and basketball generate more TV income than hockey south of the border but all three sports possess money-losing franchises.

The NHL could have profitable teams from top to bottom… if it were able to roll back salaries to 1980. That isn’t going to happen, even in a most lop-sided CBA “victory.”

So, attaining common ground with the players is far-more sensible.

On the opposing side, players have clearly indicated an aversion toward losing months of their short careers to labor unrest – and rightly so.

The staggering odds of making it to the NHL are superseded only by those of remaining in the league for more than three years.

Lavishly compensated even in labor “defeat,” our NHL heroes have a very limited appetite for remaining idle past mid-September.

Reasons to do so are even in shorter supply.

That’s why I stand firmly in belief that the puck will drop on time in 2012-13.

TOM MURRAY REPORTS – LOMBARDI HAS KINGS ON VERGE OF STANLEY CUP

Kings GM Dean Lombardi (Getty Images)

What the Kings have accomplished so far -- both away and home -- has strained credulity. â€‹Our national columnist Tom Murray views the LA success story from the source, Dean Lombardi.

No matter what happens in Monday night’s Game three of the Stanley Cup final, the Kings will have a lead in the series against the Devils, another home game on Wednesday and an opportunity to either clinch the first Cup in the history of the franchise, or put a stranglehold on the series.

So it’s hard to believe that barely 18 months ago, in early 2011, Kings GM Dean Lombardi (Ludlow, Mass.) was on the hot seat.

Oh, sure, the previous spring the Kings had taken a significant step in their fourth year under Lombardi, making the playoffs for the first time in six seasons before bowing out to the Vancouver Canucks in the first round.

But the message from Kings’ management to the GM was crystal clear for the 2011 post-season:

“The pressure is on,” said Luc Robitaille, the Kings’ president of business operations.

“Last year we set the tone. The goal was to make the playoffs. It’s never been our goal this year to just make the playoffs. Definitely this year, we need to get another step ahead. To go out in the first round this year would be considered a failure.”

And of course, that’s exactly what happened: The Kings lost their first-round series in six games to the San Jose Sharks and the conjecture and speculation began anew: What was the Kings real identity?

Were they a true Stanley Cup contender, or a middling we-are-who-we-are group, capable of teasing and tantalizing its fans but never actually capable of winning a championship?

And skeptics around the NHL weighed in with the same criticism that was leveled at Lombardi toward the end of his stint as g.m. in San Jose: He gets too attached to his players, particularly the younger ones he proudly refers to as his “core,” and he is simply reluctant to make trades, agonizing over them for so long that other managers in the league grow impatient and lose interest.

Lombardi, cheerfully thick-skinned and defiant on that day he was interviewed in his El Segundo office, defended his commitment to the group he called his “kids” -- Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson and Dustin Brown, who along with goaltender Jonathan Quick, were the cornerstones of the franchise.

“We’re way younger than what I had in San Jose at this stage,” he said, “and this group is better than I had in San Jose -- not even close. The potential core here is way better.”

And then he went a step further, saying the Chicago Blackhawks won their championship in 2010 with a roster full of the same kind of kids, all of whom were drafted and developed by the organization.

“It took ’em eight years to rebuild and win their Cup,” he said with a confident smile. “We’re ahead of schedule.”

And here we are.

Brown is the captain, the heart and soul leader of the team, a player whose timely goals and indefatigable style set the pace for the Kings from their very first post-season game.

Kopitar and Quick are legitimate contenders for the Conn Smythe Trophy and Doughty’s breathtaking ice-length rushes are drawing comparisons to -- dare we say it? -- Bobby Orr.

Johnson is gone, but in return Lombardi acquired Jeff Carter, whose overtime goal won Game Two last Saturday night and who along with his old Flyers pal Mike Richards and Dustin Penner form one of four formidable lines for the Kings.

Oh, and there’s one final footnote to this Cinderella hockey story:

Back in the summer of 2010, Lombardi jumped feet first into the sweepstakes for sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, then the prize catch on the free-agent market.

Kovalchuk, who at the time had scored 50 or more goals twice in his career, ultimately turned down the Kings’ offer, opting to stay with the Devils for a multiyear deal in the range of $100 million.

A Kings executive revealed that Kovalchuk had two very good choices, but New Jersey offered more money. The Kings offered as much as they could while leaving themselves room to lock up their younger core players, Lombardi’s “kids.” It was as simple as that.

In his two seasons since, Kovalchuk hasn’t come close to the 50-goal threshold, scoring 31 goals in 2010-11, 37 this past season. â€‹And irony of ironies, now he’s taking major heat for what many perceive as an uninspired if not downright lackadaisical performance in this final against his former suitors.

Which brings up yet another prescient thought from Lombardi in that interview in early 2011, when he was pressed about whether the Kings needed to make some sort of a statement to their fans by acquiring a star player for the team.

“When are we going to learn that there’s a difference between a great player or a star, and a winner?” Lombardi said. “People want to win — they’re not just going to want to watch a great player. They’re going to get tired of him in a hurry.” 

“If I get a star,” he said, “I want one that wins, and I want one that fits in the room with those kids.”

The Devils got their star. Lombardi stuck with his kids.

You could argue that as a result, he now has a room full of stars, who are on the brink of accomplishing something that not so very long ago seemed unimaginable.

GOSSIP

Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask (Getty Images)

The Coyotes future should be determined now that the Glendale politicos are examining prospective owner Greg Jamison's offer and the building management situation. Plus, as Commissioner Gary Bettman noted last week, Jamison continues to put his equity together. A favorable vote on the management situation should enable Jamison to finalize his equity raise. These factors could be concluded by the end of the month. But, as the Commish has stated, "The process should conclude successfully, but it's not something I'm in a position to guarantee." ...

And speaking of "guarantees," without Tim Thomas, the Bruins cannot even come close to assuring fans in Beantown that Boston will have a Cup contender next season. Tuukka Rask is not the answer and the B's brass knows that only too well. ... 

Easily the best line in print about the Bruins' gamble on Rask's ability to become a number one goaltender comes from the Boston Globe's Kevin Paul Dupont: "We only have to look as far back as Andrew Raycroft to see that glimpses of promise don't always deliver full proof!" … 

It will be interesting to hear what comes of the anticipated Bettman-Wayne Gretzky meeting in Los Angeles. The Commissioner said he's "hoping" to see The Great One. "Wayne and I communicate on a regular basis," the Commish told the media at their scrum in Newark. When a reporter suggested a "marriage between the NHL and Gretzky," Bettman put it this way: "When Wayne is more desirous, more comfortable being more involved, I think that's great. Whatever he wants to do, I'm completely supportive of. The closer he is to The Game, the more I like it." … 

The Los Angeles Kings and Fox Sports have reached an agreement on a new TV contract, where Kings games will be broadcasted on Fox Sports West through the 2024 season.  The deal is extremely lucrative for the Kings, who will receive an estimated $21 million per season, which ranks alongside some of the best TV contracts for any NHL team and local television market.  Steve Simpson, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Fox Sports West, told Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times that, "We're excited to showcase their success on our network. We're committed to the sports business in Los Angeles." …

Trade rumors are abound regarding the Vancouver Canucks and goaltender Roberto Luongo. From Tony Gallagher of the Vancouver Province, GM Mike Gillis had this to say about recent reports on the subject: “I haven’t contacted anyone with respect to Roberto at all.  I’ve had people call me and ask about him and I’ve told them that we haven’t made any decisions at all about the future of our goaltending. And that’s absolutely the truth.” … 

Nashville Predators GM David Poile traveled to impending unrestricted free agent Ryan Suter’s home in Wisconsin to meet with the star defenseman Thursday, Poile told The Tennessean.  Suter has been linked to several teams since Nashville was ousted by Phoenix in this year’s playoffs, and it’s the Red Wings who are now generating a ton of buzz with the opening they have on defense following the loss of Nicklas Lidstrom.