Clock ticking on NHL season

Sides scheduled to meet Wednesday

calexander@newsobserver.comDecember 12, 2012 

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has set a deadline – even if he says he hasn’t – and the clock continues to tick.

Last week, after collective bargaining talks failed, Bettman said he does not have a drop-dead date for canceling the 2012-13 season. But he also said at least a 48-game season must be played to have a “season with integrity,” meaning a resolution on a collective-bargaining agreement must come within the next few weeks.

The NHL and NHL Players Association will meet Wednesday, again looking to close the gap on a CBA that many seem to believe is so narrow. A federal mediator again will participate in the negotiations, which will be at a secret location away from the media glare.

The chief issues, at least from the league’s perspective, have not changed and the league has not budged on them.

The league wants a 10-year CBA, with an opt-out after eight years. It wants maximum five-year lengths on new contracts – seven years for a team re-signing its own player. It also is firm in opposing such transition issues as amnesty buyouts and capped escrow.

The players union, in turn, has proposed an eight-year CBA with opt-out after six years. It also wants an eight-year limit on new contracts.

“We started with a four-year (CBA proposal) and (the league) started at five years,” Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Jay Harrison said last week. “They’ve moved to 10 and we’ve moved to eight. It doesn’t seem like it’s as big an issue as it has to be or as big as it is. The fact (the NHLPA) got to the eight, we’ve moved significantly.”

To outsiders, the differences appear minimal, and puzzling. The two sides are allowing a $3.3 billion industry to sit idle – all games through Dec. 30 have been canceled – while they argue over such things as a 10-year vs. eight-year CBA?

Contracts lengths are important to the players. The longer, the better. But an eight-year cap? Teams can only insure contracts through seven years.

Many players believe shorter-term contracts will have teams paying star players more money per season, leaving less for the lower-salaried players. That’s the kind of salary-cap squeeze most players would like to avoid.

Harrison noted the union and league generally have agreed on such major issues as the division of hockey-related revenue and pensions. Much work has been done. A CBA is so close, yet still so far from being completed.

“We are agreed on the pension, we are agreed on the money … ,” Harrison said. “We’re simply trying to find a way to fix the contracting issues that (the owners) are very strict on, and we are, too. Those mean a lot when you’re in a market that’s capped.”

In a negotiating twist, at Bettman’s request a small group of NHL owners met with a panel of players last week in New York. There were marathon negotiating sessions Tuesday and Wednesday before everything fell apart Thursday when the league informed the NHLPA the union’s CBA proposal was not acceptable.

“I heard we were close last week,” Hurricanes forward Anthony Stewart said Monday.

The NHL and NHLPA invited in federal mediators a few weeks ago, but mediation could not end the impasse. When the NHLPA again requested last week that a mediator be involved, Bettman more or less dismissed mediation as having “no value.”

But a mediator is back, even if he can only offer advice and nothing is binding on the league or union.

“The sooner we get back to the table and figure everything out, the better for everybody,” Stewart said.

Alexander: 919-829-8945

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