By IRA PODELL
NEW YORK — With only two days left to avoid another damaging NHL lockout, players and owners huddled in separate circles to discuss what now seems inevitable.
One day after the NHL and the players’ association swapped proposals each hoped would result in a new collective bargaining agreement, the sides held internal meetings and gave no indication that a deal was anywhere close.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman stuck to his vow that players will be locked out come Saturday at midnight EDT if a new CBA isn’t hammered out before then. In case anyone doubted his resolve, Bettman said he received unanimous support from the board of governors on Thursday to shut down the sport for the second time in eight years.
“We have been clear that the collective bargaining agreement, upon its expiration, needs to have a successful agreement for us to move forward,” Bettman said Thursday. “The league is not in a position, not willing to move forward with another season under the status quo.”
The players turned out in force just a few blocks away at another midtown Manhattan hotel. Solidarity was evident, but optimism wasn’t. As of Thursday night, the sides hadn’t been in contact since talks broke off on Wednesday, and no new negotiations were scheduled.
The last labor stoppage caused the cancellation of the entire 2004-05 season, a lockout that ended only when players accepted a salary cap and a 24 percent rollback of salaries.
“Right now it’s not looking great,” said Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby, who was just 17 when the last lockout ended, “but things can change pretty quickly.”
Following lockouts last year by basketball and football owners, Bettman says hockey management is determined to come away with economic gains, even if it forces the NHL’s fourth work stoppage since 1992.
“Two other leagues — the NBA and the NFL — their players have recognized that in these economic times there is a need to retrench,” Bettman said after a two-hour owners’ meeting.
Training camps are scheduled to open Sept. 21 and the season is slated to start Oct. 11. Damage from a lockout will occur almost immediately, and there is no telling how jilted fans and sponsors will react to another shutdown.
“One of the questions that needs to be asked is, if indeed they lock out, if indeed they do do that, (whether) that is reasonably calculated to make a deal more likely or less likely?” union head Donald Fehr said. “I think you can figure out the answer.”
Management’s latest offer, made Wednesday in response to a players’ proposal, will be in effect until Saturday. Once the lockout begins, Bettman says the economic damage would cause owners to offer players a less beneficial deal.
Players currently receive 57 percent of hockey-related revenue, and the owners want to bring that number down as far as perhaps 47 percent — which is an increase from their original offer of 43 percent. The union offered a deal based on actual dollars, seeking a guarantee of the $1.8 billion players received last season.
“The fact is, we believe that 57 percent of HRR is too much,” Bettman said. “Even a brief lockout will cost more in terms of lost salary and wages than what we’re proposing to do to make a deal that we think we need to make.”
After the current contract was agreed to in July 2005, then union head Bob Goodenow resigned two weeks later. After stints by Ted Saskin and Paul Kelly, the union in 2010 turned to Fehr, who led baseball players through three work stoppages in the 1980s and ’90s.
Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller said Fehr is doing a far better job communicating with members than leadership did in the last lockout. Miller believes that he and his fellow players are more in the loop about what is going on than the 30 league owners, who are prohibited by NHL bylaws from publicly commenting about the negotiation process.
“I doubt that all the owners are as well informed as all the players,” Miller said. “I don’t know if that’s going to get me in trouble or not. I just feel like it’s kind of whatever they are told by Gary. I guess it’s a little bit like politics. Some people can’t watch Fox News because they think it’s all spun to the right, and some people can’t watch MSNBC because it’s spun to the left.
“You have this whole thing where I’m sure they feel like a lot of what we’re saying is spin.”
Players struck in April 1992, causing 30 games to be postponed.
This would be the third lockout under Bettman. The 1994-95 lockout ended after 103 days and the cancellation of 468 games. The most recent lockout was finally settled in July 2005 — 301 days into the work stoppage and a month after the league would usually have awarded the Stanley Cup.
“You get a real sense of the unity and the commitment and the participation and the understanding and the knowledge that these players have,” Fehr said. “It’s very gratifying.
“The players very much want to reach an agreement, provided that it is one which is fair and which is equitable and treats them appropriately.”
Bettman said the union has controlled the scheduling of the meetings and suggested players had reasons for wanting to delay negotiations. The league tried to start talks last summer, at last winter’s All-Star game, during the playoffs last spring and again at the Stanley Cup finals.
“Looking back in hindsight, it looks like there was no urgency on the part of the players’ association to engage or get anything done,” Bettman said. “It’s happened over the summer. I can’t and won’t speculate as to why that would be their intention, but it is what it is. If you look at the record and you look at it in hindsight, I think it is crystal clear.”
Annual industry revenue has grown from $2.1 billion to $3.3 billion under the expiring deal. Owners asked players to cut their share of hockey related revenue during a six-year proposal. Players are concerned management hasn’t addressed the league’s problems by re-examining the teams’ revenue-sharing formula.
The owners’ latest offer raised the percentage of hockey related revenue given to players from the previous proposal of 46 percent. Initially, the NHL sought to drop the number from the current 57 percent to 43 percent.
Having made several big concessions to make a deal in 2005, the union doesn’t think it should have to make more this time after a period of record financial growth.
“We believe that what we proposed is in the right direction,” Crosby said. “If you look at both, they’re definitely different, but if you have a non-biased opinion, you look at the facts. I think our mindset and the direction we’re going is one that seems like it’s a little bit more fair for both sides.”
Bettman cited the on-ice success for teams, noting that there have been seven different champions over the course of this contract, and all clubs but the Toronto Maple Leafs qualified for the playoffs at least once.
The average player salary also jumped from $1.45 million to $2.55 million over the course of the current agreement.
“We’ve had seven years of incredible competitive balance,” Bettman said. “The game on the ice has never been better. That is a function of this system. The system as originally negotiated needs some adjustments. It turned out to be too rich a deal for the first seven years. We lived with it, but I’m not going to apologize for saying we need to adjust it.
“The thought was somehow they got slammed in the negotiations last time. They didn’t. We made at the time what we thought was a fair deal. It actually turned out to be more fair than it should have been.”