TORONTO - There’s just one question on the minds of National Hockey League fans: Are Gary Bettman and Don Fehr capable of negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement in three weeks, thereby avoiding another lockout?
That’s all the time that will remain between next Wednesday, when the respective bosses of the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association meet again, and Sept. 15, when the current CBA expires.
Based on what Bettman and Fehr told media on Wednesday after reviewing the players’ proposal and sitting down to discuss it with Fehr, fans probably can make alternative plans for the night of Oct. 11, when the 2012-13 regular season is scheduled to begin, and beyond.
Bettman has said the players will be locked out on Sept. 15 if a new CBA has not been negotiated, and made clear the amount of ground the two sides must cover.
“I think it is fair to say the sides are far apart and have different views of the world and the issues,” Bettman said.
“There is still a wide gap between us with not much time to go, but this is a process we are going to continue to work hard on.”
Fehr was just as emphatic.
“There is a pretty substantial monetary gulf which is there,” Fehr said. “When you start with the proposal the owners made, how could it be otherwise?
“Consider what the proposal was: Let’s move salaries back to where they were before the (2004-05) lockout started, back to last time. That’s basically what it was. You had a 24% reduction last time, and let’s have another one. That was the proposal. That’s what creates the gulf.”
Fehr, who will meet with players in Chicago and Kelowna, B.C., for the next couple of days, acknowledged that players have been counselled for the past couple of years to prepare for a work stoppage.
“We have been advising the players to prepare for a worst-case (scenario),” Fehr said. “You always do.”
Bettman was asked about what he would say to fans who have zero interest in witnessing another lockout.
“I don’t have an appetite either to not have hockey,” Bettman said. “We are all in agreement on that. I know what the game means and I know how important it is for our franchises and our game to be healthy from an economic standpoint.”
The players want to help stronger financial teams aid the weaker ones, but the owners of strong clubs would rather the players foot the bill.
In the players’ proposal, they put forth that they would agree to a smaller percentage of revenues in the next three seasons, giving the owners an extra $465 million and possibly as much as $800 million — depending on league growth — with that money being used in revenue sharing among struggling teams.
But Bettman wasn’t thrilled that the players essentially ignored the NHL proposal, which was tabled on July 13 and asked players to accept a drop to a 46% share of hockey-related revenues (and possibly 43% under new guidelines) from 57%, among other things.
And Bettman said it was “disappointing” that they have not received a full proposal from the owners, but Fehr countered that there was not much more the players had to propose.
Bettman also dropped a hint that could not be missed when he talked to reporters, implying the players should fall into line with their NFL (where players get 47% of revenues) and NBA (players get 49%-51%) brethren.
That did not sit well with Fehr.
“The glaring omission, of course, is baseball,” Fehr said. “Baseball has no cap, has very substantial revenue sharing and no labour strife.
“When we hear references to other sports, they are references designed to make a point — why can’t we be like football and basketball? We could say the same thing — why can’t you be like baseball? Instead, the players have said is that every sport has its own economics and you have to negotiate within that context.”
GLIMMER OF HOPE
Despite the bleak outlook in the talks between the NHL and NHL Players’ Association on a new collective bargaining agreement, there is a glimmer of positivity.
“There has been an acknowledgment that we have issues,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. “The lines of communication are good, we are talking to each other, there is respect in the room, there is cordiality. There has been an acceptance that we are going to continue to have a cap system.”
That last point is critical. A season-long lockout would be cemented if NHLPA boss Don Fehr insisted there could be no cap going forward.
Fehr, however, implied the players have given up enough.
“This is an industry in which the owners insisted upon and got enormous concessions from the players last time (in 2005) with the stated expectation that would fix things,” Fehr said. “Well, their position now is it did not fix things. The question then becomes, what do you do about that? You have to find other approaches to come to common ground and I still would like to believe that we will.”