NHL and Players Meet Again

The sides were not expected to discuss the core economic issues on Saturday that are at the root of the dispute that threatens the start of the regular season.

By IRA PODELL
|  Saturday, Sep 29, 2012  |  Updated 4:19 PM CDT
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NHL and Players Meet Again

AP

Matthew Schneider, left, special assistant to NHL Players Association executive director Donald Fehr, Winnipeg Jets' Ron Hainsey, center, and Steve Fehr, players union special counsel, arrive at NHL headquarters in New York, Friday, Sept. 28, 2012. With the clock ticking down to the start of the season, the NHL and its locked-out players are talking again.

NHL Players' Association head Donald Fehr and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman held a second round of private talks on Saturday in an effort to move closer to an agreement that would end the ongoing lockout.

While negotiating teams from the union and the league discussed definitions of what makes up hockey-related revenue — the pool of money the sides are trying to figure out how to split up — Fehr and Bettman talked about the differences that are keeping the sides apart.

"I spent a few minutes with Gary talking about the overall situation, and we agreed to keep in touch," Fehr said Saturday outside of the NHL's New York office. "I am sure we will talk again (Sunday). I don't know whether will meet again (Sunday). That remains to be seen.

"I am not going to talk about the specifics, but in general we're trying to discuss how do we find a way to make an agreement. How do we bridge the gap on the major issues that are between us."

The sides met for about four hours before finishing for the day. They agreed to meet again on Sunday.

They talked for a second straight day on matters separate from the core economic issues that ultimately will have to be hammered out. In the recently expired collective bargaining agreement between the league and the union, the players received a 57 percent share of hockey-related revenue.

The NHL wants to cut the number down to under 50 percent in the new deal. The league imposed a lockout on Sept. 16, when the previous agreement ran out, and the sides didn't meet again until Friday.

"Their position on the big stuff has been that a major move consists of changing the players' share from a reduction of 24 percent to 17 1/2 percent," Fehr said. "Our initial proposal made a move in their direction. We have amplified that by giving them several different ideas to consider about how to lengthen the agreement to how to be more in line with what they wanted."

Fehr said discussing what exactly makes up hockey-related revenue is significant, because that will determine how much money is there to be divided.

Some progress was made on Friday on secondary issues related to player safety and drug testing, areas that weren't expected to be contentious. The league and union held two sessions then that totaled about five hours and included an initial meeting between Bettman and Fehr.

"I wish we had spent (Friday) on what we consider to be the more meaningful issues, but it is what it is," NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said on Friday. "We really need to hear from the players' association on those. We need some kind of sign that they are prepared to compromise their economic position because we haven't had that since Aug. 14.

"We'll see if we get there."

At least they got back to talking — which hadn't happened since a few days before the NHL locked out its players.

"It was a good day," Daly said. "We went through a lot of the areas we'd covered over the summer. We started closing off some agreements in some areas, and some continued areas of disagreements in others. It's part of the process."

All of the issues, big and small, must be ironed out before hockey can get out of the board room and back on the ice. So while the divisive topics still need to be tackled, the smaller ones have to be worked on, too.

"I don't want to use the adjective optimistic, but it was a productive discussion," NHL Players' Association special counsel Steve Fehr said on Friday. "We had a good session, and hopefully it will continue and build momentum."

The sides still aren't moving closer to a compromise while they talk about other issues.

And that is where the frustration lies. The NHL is waiting for the players' association to make a counterproposal to one the league made in the previous bargaining session more than two weeks ago.

"I don't think it's anybody's turn," Donald Fehr said Saturday. "If they have a good idea, I assume they will tell us. If we do, too, I certainly will not stand on ceremony."

But the NHL contends it has stated its position and needs the players' association to make what the league would consider a meaningful counter.

"We can't make them talk about what they don't want to talk about," Daly said. "In fairness, we do have to cover these issues if we're going to reach an agreement. What we're doing today is important, it's just not the most important things we can be doing.

"We've made at least two consecutive moves in significant dollars in their direction, and they haven't moved a single dollar in our direction since Aug. 4."

Former player Mathieu Schneider, now an NHLPA special assistant to the executive director, said Friday morning that there were agreements on more rigorous drug testing, expanding it to parts of the year during which testing is not currently done.

Neither side sees the use of performance-enhancing drugs as a problem in the NHL.

"We're in agreement that it's not an issue in our sport," Schneider said. "I think it's in the players' best interest as well as the sport to close off any possible time during the year where players could use."

Monetary issues are not expected to come up for discussion in this round of talks. Neither side has indicated it is prepared to make a new offer now regarding how to split up the more than $3 billion annual pot of hockey-related revenue.

"In general, when you're dealing with collective bargaining, when you start to have agreements on smaller issues, it can lead to bigger issues," Schneider said, "but it's still too early to say."

Saturday's talks came two days after the league canceled the remaining preseason games. The regular season is scheduled to start on Oct. 11.

If a deal isn't reached soon, regular-season games will be in danger of being lost. The NHL canceled the entire 2004-05 season because of a lockout that eventually led to the collective bargaining agreement that expired this month.

"The calendar continues to tick along," Daly said. "My guess is as time goes on, regular-season games are at risk. I don't think it can be any more urgent than where we are now. We've had that level of urgency for a long time. In some respects you can meet all you want, but if there is no compromise or no movement or no new proposals I am not sure at the end of the day what you're meeting over.

"There is a very high degree of urgency certainly on our side. I can't speak for their side, but I am sure they would tell you there is a degree of urgency there, too."

Steve Fehr contended that the players' association is willing to discuss any issues at any time to try to make a deal soon.

"We can discuss the core issues whenever they want to do it," he said. "Bargaining is not ping pong. There are no rules on who has to serve."

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