NEW YORK, N.Y. – The NHL’s collective bargaining talks resumed Wednesday with a sense of urgency and a flurry of activity, but one thing remained unchanged — the unmistakable gap between the sides.
With Saturday’s midnight deadline for a lockout looming, Donald Fehr and Gary Bettman each tabled proposals that highlighted the differing views still held by players and owners on core economic issues.
The NHL’s offer came with an added twist as commissioner Bettman indicated it would be taken off the table Saturday, citing the damage another lockout would inflict on the business. Fehr, the executive director of the NHL Players’ Association, suggested the league had done its own damage.
“Think about it this way,” he said. “You have a case where you talk about a lockout, you threaten a lockout, you tell your season ticket-holders and advertisers you’re going to have a lockout and then (once) you impose a lockout, then you want someone else to pay for it.”
The NHL’s latest proposal would see players receive more revenue than the previous two it had tabled and also took an important step by using the current definition of hockey-related revenue.
It called for the players’ share to be reduced to 49 per cent next season and would see it drop back to 47 per cent by the end of the six-year deal. Players currently receive 57 per cent of revenue.
The league’s original offer in July came in at 43 per cent and was followed by one last month at 46 per cent.
“(This proposal) had meaningful movement in it and it was an attempt to engage the union finally in trying to make a deal,” said Bettman.
However, the union leader characterized the change in the NHL’s offers differently. Fehr said the league had moved from asking for an “extraordinarily large” amount of money back to a “very big” amount.
The first formal session of bargaining between the sides since Aug. 31 kicked off with the NHLPA tabling changes to its previous offer. It kept the first three years intact — a system not linked to hockey revenues with fixed increases of two per cent, four per cent and six per cent over the first three years — before having the final two years determined by a return to the percentage of overall revenues.
The precise number would be determined by the league’s growth rate at that time, with the players’ share set at a lower rate if business is booming, according to Fehr.
Bettman said the union’s offer represented “very little movement, if any,” which prompted him to draft a new deal on the fly with Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs and Calgary Flames owner Murray Edwards.
“Their proposal was really not much different, except around the edges, from the last proposal they made, which we had indicated was not acceptable,” said Bettman.
Perhaps the most telling thing about the status of negotiations is the fact the sides are still working off different models with only days remaining before the NHL’s fourth work stoppage in 20 years. To make matters worse, they’re currently only tackling the league’s economic model, leaving such potentially contentious issues as revenue sharing, contract length and discipline to be worked out later.
Both sides know exactly what’s at stake.
Fehr kicked off a meeting with about 300 players on Wednesday night while Bettman was scheduled to preside over a session with the league’s board of governors on Thursday afternoon. It’s expected the commissioner will formally be given the mandate for a lockout during that sitdown.
With all signs pointing to that outcome this weekend, Bettman is facing the third lockout during his tenure.
“I assure you, nobody wants to make a deal more than I do,” he said.
Away from the action in New York, the union continued to try to keep a small portion of its membership on the payroll. On Wednesday, the NHLPA announced it had filed an application with Quebec’s labour relations board, along with at least 16 players of the Montreal Canadiens, asking it to declare a lockout illegal in the province.
According to the NHLPA, the NHL cannot legally enforce a lockout in Quebec because the players’ union is not a group certified by the labour board. A hearing on the application is scheduled for Friday morning in Montreal.
“The players don’t want to see hockey interrupted,” said Fehr. “We believe that under Quebec law the lockout would not be appropriate and would not be legal. So we’re serving that position.
“We would like to think that’s consistent with the interests of the fans and eventually with the interests of the owners.”
When asked how this would help the other 29 markets, Fehr responded: “One day at a time and one place at a time.”
Bettman dismissed the filing in Quebec as a “tactic.”
“We don’t believe the provincial jurisdiction on the labour front is something that we’re subject to,” he said.
There are no formal meetings scheduled between the sides with time quickly ticking down on the current CBA, although both Fehr and Bettman expressed a willingness to return to the bargaining table.
At this point, it’s hard to envision an 11th-hour deal surfacing.
Fehr has repeatedly said that the players are willing to negotiate past Saturday without a work stoppage, but understands the consequences of not getting a deal done before then.
“There’s no work that’s supposed to be performed on Sunday or Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday or those days (before training camps open),” said Fehr. “We treat the deadline as real, they’ve said it’s real and I’m prepared to take Gary at his word about that. No reason not to.
“I would just remind everybody that a lockout is a choice — it doesn’t have to be made.”