NHL chiefs, players' representatives talk

calexander@newsobserver.comSeptember 8, 2012 

They’re talking again.

While collective bargaining negotiations officially are at a standstill between the NHL and the NHL Players Association, informal meetings were held Friday in New York. It’s unclear what was discussed by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, who both refused to provide any details.

“Just trying to find a way to bridge the gap,” Fehr told reporters.

The league’s collective bargaining agreement, signed in 2005, expires a week from Saturday. Bettman has said if a new CBA has not been approved, the players will be locked out.

A “recess” in the CBA talks was called Aug. 31 as Bettman said the union was “stonewalling” and Fehr objected to Bettman’s accusation. But the two were back together Friday in meetings that also included deputy commissioner Bill Daly and Steve Fehr, Donald Fehr’s brother and NHLPA special counsel.

More than 200 players are expected to gather next week in New York to be briefed by Fehr and also demonstrate the solidarity of the union. Bettman will address the NHL board of governors meeting on Thursday.

Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Jay Harrison said he will be in New York for the NHLPA meetings, and other Canes players also may attend. Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos Jr. and general manager Jim Rutherford will be at the governors meeting.

"For the players, it shows the interest and the unity of the group, as well," Harrison said Friday. "It will be very informative. I think we will all leave there on the same page.

“It’s certainly not a publicity stunt. You’ve got 200 guys going because we’re interested and want to know as much as we can."

As for whether a lockout can be avoided, Harrison said, "We’re all hopeful."

Former Canes defenseman Aaron Ward, who has served as a TSN analyst during the CBA talks, isn’t as optimistic. Asked Friday what he expected to happen next week he said, "Nothing."

"I think it’s going to take time," Ward said. "I think both sides are going to play the waiting game."

Ward, like many, is expecting another lockout. In 2004, CBA talks broke off, then turned bitter, and the 2004-2005 season eventually was canceled.

One key difference now, Ward noted, is that a portion of the players’ salaries are put in an escrow account each year until the annual total of hockey-related revenue (HRR) is determined. The players are due an escrow check in October – extra dollars to tide them over should there be a lockout.

"The owners’ perspective is when the players miss their first (pay) check, that will have some adverse affect on their unity as a group," Ward said. "But that’s a significant escrow check. That’s pretty timely. October is a good time to get some money back."

A stumbling block in the CBA talks has been in defining HRR. The union claims the league wants to both redefine hockey-related revenue and give them a "smaller piece of a smaller pie."

"I believe our stance from the union perspective is to maintain the definition as it stands, because everyone understands it and it has been in place for a long time," Harrison said.

The players, under the current CBA, receive 57 percent of the HRR. The union has proposed smaller salary increases the next three years, with an option to revert back to 57 percent in the fourth year if league revenues continue to grow.

The league has proposed a six-year CBA with an 11.5-percent reduction of the players’ revenue split the first year, then 8.5 percent the second year and 5.5 percent in the third.

"Neither are talking the same language," Ward said. "Until you can agree on what you’re trying to negotiate off of, you’re going to get nowhere."

Ward, who retired in 2010, skated Friday morning with several Hurricanes players at Raleigh Center Ice. He made his comments before the New York meeting had ended.

More informal CBA discussions could be held Saturday in New York.

Alexander: 919-829-8945

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