Monday, September 10, 2012

Westgarth: NHL 'believes in a different reality'


Los Angeles Kings forward Kevin Westgarth has been heavily involved in the NHL's labor negotiations, and he joined "I'm Just Sayin" on Thursday to strongly defend the NHLPA's latest proposal, and to heavily criticize the way the league's owners and commissioner Gary Bettman are handling the situation

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman wants you to know that he's ready to lock his players out, if a new collective bargaining agreement can't be reached by Sept. 15.

The first question you may be asking yourself is, who's at fault?

Understand that mostly anything said by either side -- the players or the league -- is part of the negotiation process. But as we near that Sept. 15 deadline, it is also important to know the facts.

And the biggest fact is that the NHL got "everything they wanted" the last time it locked the players out, in 2004-05.

That quote is from Los Angeles Kings forward Kevin Westgarth, who appeared on my daily sports-talk webcast -- I'm Just Sayin' -- on Thursday.

Westgarth is an enforcer for the Kings. But don't get the wrong idea. He's a Princeton University graduate. And he's been to so many of these labor negotiations that he can't even remember the number of meetings he's attended.

And the second-biggest fact -- as Westgarth pointed out on Thursday's show -- is that money is the biggest issue holding everything up.

"Inevitably, it's -- like in any industry -- it's money," he said. "Gary [Bettman] has said it himself, he said he feels that the owners should be paying us less. I tend to disagree with that. It's a league that has had record revenue the last few years. The game is just growing.

"The last time they locked us out they got, as I said, basically everything that they wanted, including a salary cap which controls their cost automatically for players. They got all that and they basically said that the players will still share in the growth of the game. And when you have as salary cap that's tied to revenues, it automatically does that. And now they're trying to take that away and tell us that, essentially, we had nothing to do with the game growing and the fans supporting it more and more."

The NHLPA has come back to the league with a proposal that they believe is fair, unlike the league's proposal. The players don't believe the league is being realistic. The league is trying to get "everything they want" once again.

So who will be the next to budge?

Realistically, if money is the biggest issue, then the players have some leverage. And "some" might be an understatement.

That's because if the Winter Classic and HBO's 24/7 are as big a money maker as we're meant to believe, then there's no way the league will completely wipe them off the schedule.

The Detroit Red Wings vs. the Toronto Maple Leafs at Michigan Stadium, with the Alumni Game at Comerica Park.

Forget about the Alumni Game and all of the other events that are probably scheduled at Comerica. But would the league really be willing to cancel an event that will seat at least 110,000 at the Big House?

Let's be serious.

The 2012-13 NHL season might not start on time. In fact, it probably won't. But the players know just how big an event the Winter Classic is. And this year's version will be as big as it's ever been.

So don't expect the NHLPA to settle for anything less than their current proposal. They've already "budged." They feel like they've already made concessions. And after hearing what Westgarth had to say on Thursday, it doesn't sound like they're going to make any more. Especially if they feel that the power of the Winter Classic provides them some leverage.

"Our proposal is based on the players giving up a number of concessions," said Westgarth. "We're going to give back hundreds of millions of dollars over the next few years so that the owners can essentially try to grow themselves out of their own problems. And with that is a piece of revenue sharing, that is what we're asking for them to help us out to essentially fix whatever problems they may have, and to help out these teams that may be struggling. We're willing to take some cutbacks over the next few years to limit the amount that we will be growing, league-wide. And obviously that was not accepted very well by the owners. But, moving forward, that has to be the way that we go with it, with a huge piece of revenue sharing."

As Westgarth attempted to get his message out, he didn't hold back any punches. And while most of the stuff you hear from both sides -- publicly -- is part of the negotiation process, Westgarth's evident frustrations with the owners and Bettman were genuine and from the heart, on Thursday's show.

"Well, we're definitely willing to work and to keep talking so that we can figure this out," said Westgarth. "But it's tough when you're negotiating against someone that believes in a different reality. They basically just want to have a money-grab from the players, as opposed to trying to fix the actual problems, and that's what we're looking to do here."

Part of the league's stubbornness and greed unfortunately includes a lockout. As Westgarth pointed out, even without a new CBA, a lockout can be avoided. The players are willing to play under the current CBA. But that's not something the league is willing to do.

"It would be wonderful to get it done by the Sept. 15 deadline, and we'll do everything that we can to do it," said Westgarth. "That being said, the Sept. 15 deadline is only important because the owners have said that they will lock us out. We'd be more than willing to play under the current CBA, and to continue negotiating in good faith, and to get ready and to play hockey this season. But the owners won't let us do that, and it's something I guess we'll see coming up in the next week."

The NHLPA will conduct internal meetings of their own on Wednesday and Thursday of this week, just days before Bettman's deadline.

Whether or not the two sides meet again this week, remains to be seen. Assuming they will meet on Friday -- one day before that deadline -- it doesn't seem like the sides are close, or at least, will get close enough to get a deal done and begin the season on time.

That means someone will have to budge. Someone will have to accept less than they actually want.

The players have already made their concessions. Now, it's time for the league to do the same.

"The fans are frustrated, and I think the players are frustrated as well," said Westgarth. "It's something that we do want to take care of. I think the owners and the NHL got essentially everything they wanted last time, and for them to come with the variety of proposals they've brought so far just strictly isn't fair. We're looking for a fair deal just so we can get back to playing hockey.

"As I said, we were willing to make some concessions over the next few years," he later added. "And it's just unfortunate because, for us, any type of work stoppage would be an absolute last resort, but I think as we're seeing with a lot of the leagues now, but especially the NHL, it seems like the lockout tends to be essentially one of their negotiating tactics and kind of first course of action to try to put pressure on the players. As a player, it sucks because we want to play hockey, we know the fans want hockey and we love watching it as much as anybody else.

"I am extremely hopeful that, ya, we will be having hockey. As I said, I know the fans want it. I know that the NHL sometimes might -- the league and the commissioner -- might think that they can do anything to the hockey fans because they're the best fans in the world, but I think that's just being incredibly obtuse and taking them for granted. It's not something that we're willing to do, as players. We're on the fans' side. We want to get this done and make sure we're playing as soon as possible, and make sure that no games are lost in the greatest sport in the world."

If games are lost, then it will be the league's fault. And if anyone's going to concede next, it will be the league. It has to be.

Because it won't be the players.

-- Follow Danny on twitter: @DannyPicard --

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