NHL lockout watch: Players united in the face of team owners' clawback demands

More than 250 players will meet Wednesday and Thursday in New York to discuss the looming NHL lockout. They will make a show of their solidarity. They will say they just want to play and just want a fair deal.

Yes, it's easy for them to be united now. The lockout won't start until Sunday. They won't miss a paycheck until mid-October. They won't feel real pain until well after that. The true test is yet to come.

But it's easy for them to be united now for another reason, too. The NHL has made it easy, demanding the players take an immediate pay cut while the league rakes in record revenues, and that could backfire on the owners.

It could stiffen the players' resolve instead of weaken it. It could make a long lockout out of what could have been a short lockout – or a lockout that could have been avoided altogether.

If the owners would pay the players what they are making already in terms of real dollars, the players would be much more likely to give them the 50-50 revenue split they want, at least over time. As one player familiar with the negotiations put it: "I think that's something that sounds pretty good to most guys." That's something that would pave the way to a deal.

But the owners don't want to do that. Their latest proposal unlinks the salary cap from revenues and sets it at $58 million this season, $60 million next season and $62 million the following season, before linking it to revenues again. The cap was $64.3 million last season and was set at $70.2 million this season under the terms of the current collective bargaining agreement.

[Related: KHL introduces strict guidelines for adding locked-out NHLers]

The owners want the players' percentage of revenue to drop from 57 percent to 46 percent. That means the owners essentially wouldn't honor contracts they have already signed.

Look, labor negotiations aren't about what's fair or unfair. They're about leverage. We all ought to know that by now. But this feels unfair on a basic level, and it could have an impact on a practical level if it makes the players dig in.

The league argues that this is overblown. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly has pointed out publicly that players are not guaranteed every dollar of their contracts under the current CBA.

What Daly is talking about is escrow. Because the players receive a share of hockey-related revenue, a percentage of their paychecks is withheld to ensure the owners don't spend too much. After the season, the accountants crunch the numbers. In five of the seven years of this CBA, the players didn't get all of their money back.

The players know that. They know that all too well.

"Just because you sign a contract for X amount of dollars doesn't mean that you're guaranteed that money," said defenseman Niklas Kronwall, the Detroit Red Wings' union representative. "It's all connected with the revenues."

[Also: NHL teams must cease player promotions in event of lockout]

The players have never liked escrow. But because revenues have gone up so dramatically, they have never taken a huge hit. The New York Post reported the players' average escrow loss over the seven years has been 3.2 percent, and that would balloon to double digits under the owners' latest proposal.

A pay cut is a pay cut, whether it comes in the form of an up-front rollback or escrow deductions, and the owners knew this would be the league's strategy long ago. They knew commissioner Gary Bettman would try to lower the salary cap. As one senior team executive put it in February: "I'm sure it will only become tighter, if you believe Mr. Bettman."

So when the owners signed some of these players this summer, throwing around millions upon millions, did they do it figuring they wouldn't have to pay the full freight? Is that good faith?

The owners have not made a convincing case that the players need to take an immediate pay cut. They have trumpeted their record $3.3 billion in revenue, while quietly and vaguely claiming they are losing money because of skyrocketing costs. Remember: The union has gone over the books and come to its own conclusions.

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The players have acknowledged the league does have some problems, and they have offered concessions. They have offered to cap their increases at 2 percent, 4 percent and 6 percent over the next three years, which could give them a smaller slice of the pie than they have now assuming revenues continue to grow. They wanted to snap back to 57 percent of revenues in Year 4, and when the league objected, they said they were willing to discuss alternatives and a smaller share. They have proposed increased revenue sharing and a new system to target the funds, because they want to help the teams that really need it, not the ones that don't, and they don't want to do it alone.

Have they moved far enough? No. But they have moved much farther than many thought they would, considering executive director Don Fehr's well-known distaste for the salary cap itself, and they aren't about to move any farther while the league insists they take a step backward financially.

Not when the owners locked them out for an entire season in 2004-05. Not when the owners forced them to accept a salary cap and 24-percent salary rollback last time. Not when the owners want to redefine hockey-related revenue and are attacking contract lengths, arbitration rights and free agency rules, too. Not when they fear this pattern will keep repeating itself in the future if they just give in now. Not when they simply don't see the need.

"It isn't that bad," said Red Wings star Henrik Zetterberg, a member of the union's negotiating committee. "The situation in the league is not that bad. If you look at the last seven years, the revenues have gone up and up and up and up and up, but there's some teams that are struggling. There will always be that if you don't help them out. As long as the league doesn't want to do that, we will have a problem. So far they want us to do all the work. Right now they're not doing anything."

The owners don't have to do anything. They don't have to make a convincing case. They can lock out the players again, and they can wait them out again. At some point, Bettman will warn the players that the deal will only get worse for them the longer this lasts, and he very well might be right.

But the worse the deal looks to the players, the longer this might go, too.

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