NHL, union talk again — but not about money
By IRA PODELL
NEW YORK — NHL arenas are dark, and now so are its negotiating rooms.
Hockey’s opening day came and went Thursday with no games and no reason to think players will be hitting the ice anytime soon.
The league and the union were back at the bargaining table, hours before pucks were supposed to drop to open the regular season, but once again the sides didn’t address the core economic differences at the center of the league’s lockout that has already lasted 26 days.
After discussing secondary topics for a second straight day, no plans were made to meet again. Forget about today, the likelihood of any hockey being played in October is quickly fading.
“Until we’re really tackling the major issues, I’m not sure there is a real-time urgency on these other issues,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said. “Let’s take the time, let’s redo proposals on the basis of the two days of discussion. When we have that done, and it makes sense to meet, I am sure we’ll meet.
“We didn’t leave today’s meeting saying, ‘This is ridiculous. There is no reason to continue meeting on any level.’ None of our discussions have led to that result, and I don’t expect them to at any time in the near future.”
After five hours of talks at the league office on Wednesday, the sides got back together for nearly as long — in two separate sessions — on Thursday. Union head Donald Fehr stayed away, and wasn’t in contact with Commissioner Gary Bettman.
Although it has been a week since the NHL called off the first two weeks of the regular season, that sting was felt full force Thursday when opening day passed without any games played.
“We’re creatures of habit,” sad Vancouver Canucks forward Manny Malhotra, a member of the union’s negotiating team. “We’re used to doing things at certain times, and right now would be time to be playing again. Guys are frustrated with the monotony of just going to the rink, or working out and still doing those things that we’re used to doing in the summertime.
“The frustration sets in. Guys want to be doing what we love to do. It’s been that way since we missed the first day of camp.”
Progress was made Thursday on a drug testing plan, and the sides also dealt with contract issues such as term length and player assignments that still need to be worked on. Other miscellaneous legal issues were also discussed, again with some disagreements.
“There are still a few things to work out,” NHLPA special counsel Steve Fehr said. “That is not the core issue, obviously. If we had everything else settled, we could go back to work and solve the remaining issues in six hours if we had to.”
Last week, the NHL canceled — at least temporarily — 82 games from Thursday through Oct. 24.
Daly estimated the NHL lost $100 million from the cancellation of the entire preseason and would be out another $140 million to $150 million with the regular-season losses. He wouldn’t speculate when more games would be trimmed from the schedule or how long it would take to get the league up and running if a deal is finally reached.
“It’s a disappointment. There is no way around that,” Daly said. “I certainly hoped and would have expected we would be in a different place today. I would’ve expected we would’ve had an agreement, I would’ve expected we would have been dropping the puck.
“In retrospect, I look back at it, and while we were all hopeful during the course of the summer that there was plenty of time to get a deal done, maybe the fault lies in the fact that we didn’t start negotiations until June 29. That goes back to the level of urgency maybe with the players’ association and not being prepared to have those discussions.”
The NHL still says it is waiting for a new proposal from the union, with the owners adamant players accept a significant drop from the 57 percent of revenue they received under the salary cap in the last contract. The players don’t want what they consider massive cuts at a time when the overall revenue pot reached record numbers ($3.3 billion) last year.
“For most of the last few weeks, unless it was on their terms, unless we’ve had a proposal they don’t seem very interested in discussing the core economics,” Steve Fehr said. “Let’s keep in mind that they are the ones who started this with a request for a 24 percent rollback, which they’ve inched back a little, in addition to putting proposals on the table that would severely limit and curtail player contracting rights which had the predictable result of provoking players.
“It is further compounded by their strategy of first lock out and then see what happens. That is why we are in this mess today.”
“We’ve been down that road a couple of times and it continues to be our belief the union has made one meaningful proposal in this entire process — that was on Aug. 14. Now they have made it three times, and they are suggesting that it is three different proposals. It wasn’t,” he said. “Bottom line is it is difficult to understand why we should make a third proposal in their direction. At some point we’ve got to see a willingness from the players’ association to compromise because they haven’t shown any willingness to compromise at this point.”
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