The NHL rolled the NHL Players Association in the last Collective Bargaining Agreement that was reached when the league resumed play in 2005-06.
Prior to that agreement, the NHL lost the 2004-05 season due to a work stoppage. Since there was no CBA, the owners locked out the players and they were not allowed to return to the NHL and play hockey until a new agreement was reached.
Prior to returning, the NHL got a 24 percent salary rollback from its players.
The NHL has now asked for same salary rollback in its new CBA proposal (source:Yahoo.com). That request may be difficult for NHLPA negotiator Donald Fehr to abide.
For one thing, league revenues have increased by approximately 50 percent to $3.3 billion since the last work stoppage (source: Toronto Globe and Mail). That would seem to indicate that another salary rollback would be met with much stronger resistance.
Fehr is the former head of the Major League Baseball Players Association. He learned from Marvin Miller and has been through the wars before.
He is not intimidated by Gary Bettman and will not accept a deal that is shoved down his throat by owners who are of the opinion that they won the last fight with the players and that they can win the next one as well.
Fehr is tough, experienced and smart. His intelligence is being demonstrated at this point in the negotiations because he is not reacting emotionally to the owners' CBA presentation that would result in salary rollbacks if they were accepted.
Can a work stoppage between the NHL and the Players' Association be avoided?
Fehr is not likely to get emotional or engage in name calling with his rivals across the table. Instead, he is likely to spend his time building common ground based on the wants and needs of the players he represents.
How does Fehr know what his players want? He has been meeting with them and taking their pulse before he brings their response to the negotiating table. That will allow him to represent the players in good conscience when he is negotiating on their behalf.
The players are likely to have their own demands. According to Gary Roberts, the dean of The Law School at the University of Indiana and a long-time sports labor expert, the NHL went from having no salary cap to the "hardest cap in sports." (source: Forbes Magazine)
This is likely a point that the NHLPA will try to rectify.
Bettman will soon see that Fehr gives them a much different and stronger representation than the NHLPA had in the past. He must show he can keep up with Fehr intellectually.
If he tries to bully the players, it could lead to a long and ugly fight.
Bettman may have taken the first step towards doing that Aug. 9 when he told media members that the league was prepared to lock players out if a new CBA was not reached by Sept. 15. Bettman said the NHLPA had been told that earlier (source: NHL.com).
The edge at this point lies with ownership and Bettman. However, as soon as Bettman brings his counter-offer to the table, that edge could dissipate.