League presents six economic concepts

Updated: July 22, 2004, 3:07 AM ET
Associated Press

NEW YORK -- The longest negotiating session in nine months between the NHL and the players' association failed to bring the sides closer to saving the upcoming season.

Representatives from the league and the NHLPA met for four hours Wednesday, trying to bridge the gap and settle what is shaping up to be the toughest labor battle in hockey history.

The league presented six possible concepts for a new economic system, but little progress was made on a new deal during the meeting in the NHL's Manhattan office. The session was the fourth between the sides since negotiations began last October, but the prospect of a lockout that threatens next season still looms.

"We had a good candid dialogue, and we have to continue to work at it," said Bill Daly, the NHL's chief legal officer. "We remain hopeful that if we continue to work at it, good things will happen."

Daly said that talks were substantive and that there was a detailed discussion of at least some of the proposed ideas. He added that NHLPA negotiators requested more information, which the league will provide before the parties meet again Aug. 4 in Toronto.

"We want to make sure, in fairness to the process, we fully understand everything they're considering and putting forth so maybe we can look at that and find different ways to address the issues," said Ted Saskin, the players' association senior director.

Since the first negotiating session, the league and the players' association met in Toronto in April and again in May at the Stanley Cup finals. Those meetings totaled six hours.

"I would say it was the most substantive in terms of information provided and concepts discussed," Daly said of Wednesday's session.

Saskin was less enthusiastic about the day's events.

"It's always healthy to meet and debate the issues, but we haven't come any closer to an agreement," he said.

The current deal, extended twice since it was hammered out in 1995, expires Sept. 15. If a new agreement isn't reached, a lockout is expected.

"It's hard to take a snapshot at any point in the process and say you're optimistic, pessimistic, whatever," Daly said. "You just continue to work toward a goal."

But Saskin said the goal can't be reached if the NHL doesn't change its position of demanding a hard salary cap.

"We've approached each meeting thus far in the process with a desire to negotiate a fair deal," Saskin said. "Unfortunately, we need to have a negotiating partner with more objectives. They have only one view of how they want to do things and that hasn't enabled us to advance the negotiations."

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has vowed on behalf of the owners to work out a deal with the union that will radically change the financial landscape. He is determined to make sure the percentage of revenues paid out in player salaries is sliced, and to establish "cost certainty" for clubs.

An economic study commissioned by the NHL found that players get 76 percent of all league revenues -- far more than the percentage for the other major team sports. The players' association has challenged many of the league's financial findings.

Daly said that each of the new concepts was designed to address the league's cost-certainty objectives but that not all the ideas involved a mandatory link between revenues and player costs.

"Each [concept] is predicated on agreeing to a negotiated percentage for player compensation, i.e., a salary cap. So there hasn't been any change from that perspective," Saskin said. "They remain fixated on a cap, and we remain committed to negotiating a fair agreement that retains a marketplace."

At the opening negotiating session in October, the NHLPA offered a proposal containing a luxury tax, a 5 percent rollback in player salaries, changes in entry-level salaries and revenue sharing.

Bettman has said owners will wait as long as necessary to achieve their goals.

If so, the next lockout could be worse than the one that lasted 103 days and cut the 1994-95 season nearly in half. Owners have been preparing for that possibility for the last several years, and have built up a $300 million war chest.

But that won't be enough to protect many NHL employees. Some found out Tuesday that their jobs are in jeopardy if a lockout occurs.

Bernadette Mansur, the NHL's group vice president of communications, said over 50 percent of league employees in New York, New Jersey, Toronto and Montreal will be laid off Sept. 20 if a new CBA isn't reached by the 16th.

Those who work until the 20th will receive a severance package, plus vacation compensation and extended medical benefits.

"We hope that we'll never have to implement this contingency plan, but our employees need to know the details so they can plan the future," Mansur said. "It's all departments, and it's all levels in all departments."

Those hardest hit would be the ones that are game-related, such as the credentialing and broadcasting departments.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press