NHL negotiations: 'Right now, it's not looking great'

Deadlocked players union, NHL seemingly preparing for lockout

calexander@newsobserver.comSeptember 14, 2012 

NHL Labor Hockey

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks to reporters after meeting with team owners, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012 in New York. The current collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players expires Saturday at midnight. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

MARY ALTAFFER — AP

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman threw down the gauntlet Thursday.

Emerging from a meeting of the league’s board of governors in New York, Bettman again said if there is no new collective-bargaining agreement by midnight Saturday, when the current labor deal will expire, there will be a lockout of the league’s players.

Bettman, speaking at a news conference, said the league’s board of governors unanimously voted Thursday to support his position on a lockout. He blamed the NHL Players Association for the late start to meaningful negotiations, saying the players union showed “no urgency” until late June.

Both sides appeared to be preparing for a lockout – the NHL’s third since Bettman became commissioner in 1993 – that could push back the start of the season and result in a loss of games. Eight years ago, a bitter battle over a CBA caused the cancellation of the 2004-05 season.

Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby, one of the 283 players in New York for the NHLPA meeting, warily said, “Right now, it’s not looking great.”

NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, flanked by Crosby and other players at his news conference, said he remained hopeful the sides could bridge the gap, adding, “Tonight would be nice.”

Fehr later said a lockout always should be a “last resort” but seemingly was a “first resort” in the NHL, which has left the players frustrated.

“No athlete likes to lose games. If they are willing to, there must be some powerful reasons,” he said.

The yearly division of hockey-related revenue (HRR) continues to be the most divisive issue.

“We believe as a league, we are paying out too much money,” Bettman said Thursday.

The players were receiving 57percent of HRR, a figure that escalated from 54 percent in 2005-06. The NHL’s initial CBA proposal in July was for a cutback to 43 percent.

The NHL’s offer caused indignation from the union, but Bettman retorted Thursday, “If you think 43 percent is unfair, remember we have been getting 43 percent to operate the league and pay all the expenses.”

Bettman said the six-year CBA being proposed by the league would reduce player salaries by roughly 9 percent the first year, then 7 percent and 4 percent the next two years. He claimed it was not a salary rollback but would be covered by the yearly escrow paid by the players.

“Even a brief lockout will cost more in terms of lost salary wages than what we’re proposing to do … to make a deal that we think we need to make,” Bettman said.

The union has proposed a five-year CBA with small salary increases.

Fehr noted the league received a 24 percent rollback in salaries in 2005, when a hard salary cap was established. He said the owners now are out to “see what else they can get.”

The league also is seeking a reduction of contract lengths to five years, an end to salary arbitration and beginning unrestricted free agency after 10 years of service instead of the current seven years.

As Fehr put it, “Less money, fewer rights.”

Fehr said the players are seeking more extensive revenue sharing to help financially distressed teams, but he said the league’s apparent unwillingness to discuss such an expansion was “significantly disappointing.”

Bettman said he feels “terrible” about the possibility of another lockout, saying, “No one wants to make a deal more than I do.” Fehr said much the same, but the gap between the sides appears wide with little time left.

While the meetings were being held Thursday in New York, Carolina Hurricanes forward Jiri Tlusty and other teammates skated at Raleigh Center Ice.

“It’s a sad story right now, but we have to get the deal done and it has to be worth it for both sides,” Tlusty said.

Alexander: 919-829-8945

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