NEW YORK — Darkness is about to descend on the National Hockey League. Again.
Reiterating that the season won’t start until there is a new collective bargaining agreement, commissioner Gary Bettman offered an impassioned defence of the league’s stance Thursday as it headed toward its fourth work stoppage in 20 years.
“Listen, nobody wants to make a deal and play hockey more than I do, OK?” he said during a news conference. “This is what I do. This is what my life is about in terms of how I spend most of my waking hours. This is really hard.
“And so you only get involved in this situation when you understand what the issues are and you know you’re doing the right thing for the long-term stability of our game and our sport. This is very hard and I feel terrible about it.”
No one is holding out hope that an 11th-hour deal will be struck before the CBA expires Saturday at midnight. Both Bettman and Donald Fehr, the executive director of the NHL Players’ Association, spoke in a manner that made another work stoppage seem inevitable after wrapping up important meetings with their constituents.
They have no plans to return to the bargaining table before the deadline passes.
Instead, it appears as if hockey will enter yet another work stoppage — with a source indicating that pre-season games will start being cancelled as soon as next week. Training camps scheduled to open Sept. 21 will also soon be a casualty, with the first regular- season games not too far behind.
Fehr said the players made large concessions after the entire 2004-05 season was wiped out by a lockout. Since then, overall revenues have grown dramatically.
He asked whether it was fair or equitable that the owners want more concessions and reiterated that they will be the ones choosing to shut the doors.
“The players want to find a way to make an agreement. They want to negotiate until we do,” Fehr, flanked by many of the game’s top players, told a packed news conference.
Sidney Crosby, Henrik Zetterberg, John Tavares, Zdeno Chara, Henrik Lundqvist, Daniel Alfredsson and Zach Parise were just a handful of the 283 players who turned up in New York for two days of meetings. They emerged presenting a united front and spoke with the same calmness as Fehr, whom they hired in 2010 with the express purpose of getting a good deal in these negotiations.
While the players would rather be preparing for training camp, Crosby indicated that they’re not willing to do it at any cost.
“I know in my case not playing for as long as I did the last year and a half, I obviously want to play,” he said. “But I think you also have to realize that there’s principles here and you have to understand what’s right.
“And I think we believe that what we propose is in that right direction. If you look at both (proposals), yeah 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.”
The sides returned to the negotiating table on Wednesday and each made adjustments to previous proposals.
The owners asked players to cut their share of hockey-related revenue during a six-year proposal. Current industry revenue is pegged at US$3.3 billion annually.
Initially, owners sought to drop the percentage given to players to 43 per cent from the current 57 per cent. They have since amended that to a deal that starts at 49 per cent the first year, drops to 48 per cent the next and is set at 47 per cent for the remaining four.
The NHLPA is offering a package that starts at 54.3 per cent and ends at 52.7 per cent — something Fehr referred to as a “shared sacrifice.”
Bettman noted the average player salary had gone from US$1.45 million to $2.55 million in seven years. The salary cap system won in the last CBA helped create better competitive balance on the ice, according to the commissioner, but he feels there is no getting around the fact “we are paying out too much money.”
He also issued a word of caution about the damage another work stoppage is sure to inflict on the business of hockey.
“Even a brief lockout will cost more in terms of lost salary wages than what we’re proposing to do to make a deal that we think we need to make,” Bettman said.
During a two-hour board of governors meeting on Thursday afternoon, Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly gave owners a detailed update on negotiations. Afterwards, Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, the chairman of the board, put forward a motion for governors to vote on imposing a lockout. It passed unanimously, according to Bettman.
While the commissioner remained committed to meeting at “any time” or “any place,” he questioned whether the union was as motivated to make a deal.
“If you’re dedicated to the negotiating process, you can move this along quickly,” said Bettman. “If, for whatever reason, you’re not interested in making a deal, you drag it out.”
Fehr had levied a similar claim at the NHL just two hours earlier.
“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?” he said. “I think you can figure out the answer.”
And so the league is back in a familiar spot, with players and owners in a CBA standoff and neither willing to budge.
When the NHL and NHLPA engaged in this fight eight years ago, it took three months for them to return to the bargaining table after the lockout was imposed. There doesn’t appear to be the same level of animosity this time around, but both sides seem more than ready to show their resolve.
“Because we went through it seven or eight years ago, guys I think were more prepared for it this time,” said Ottawa Senators forward Jason Spezza. “Guys have been through this before and I think the patience of the players is probably (better). It seemed like they were going to lock us out — it didn’t matter what went on in negotiating — and that’s what’s disappointing.”