League, union have little good to say
Three days of meetings between the NHL and the Players Association failed to bring the sides closer to a new labor agreement that would prevent a lockout from being imposed in less than two weeks.
The sides talked for about 20 hours over three days in Montreal and finished this latest round of discussions Thursday. All that appeared to be accomplished was the completion of an assessment of the business and management operations of each of the 30 clubs.
The NHLPA called these discussions that began two weeks earlier in New Jersey a "side step" in the negotiations. The NHL labeled it a "charade" and said the players were stalling to force owners to lock them out once the collective bargaining agreement expires Sept. 15.
"We continue to be somewhat dubious as to where they're going with it, but they made assurances to us that it was for the purpose of furthering the negotiation," said Bill Daly, the NHL's chief legal officer and executive vice president. "While they didn't commit to making a proposal, I would suggest we expect one since they suggested this discussion was for a purpose."
But the NHLPA contends owners will listen only to a proposal that includes a salary cap, a solution the players refuse to offer or accept. The players have been reluctant to offer a new deal it feels has no chance of being received favorably.
"They are still only interested in negotiating a cap system, which provides us with no reason for optimism and no basis for any real progress," NHLPA senior director Ted Saskin said.
For now, the sides are negotiating while partners in the World Cup of Hockey that began this week. The championship is Sept. 14 -- the eve of a potential lockout date -- in Toronto.
Both parties expect to get together again next week. Toronto and St. Paul, Minn., are likely destinations because World Cup games are there.
"The players have made it very clear that there is a lot they are prepared to talk about to reach a fair deal for both sides," Saskin said. "The only thing we are not prepared to talk about is a salary cap."
Nor do the players seem ready to make another proposal. The only one they've made came when negotiations began last Oct. 1. That contained a luxury tax, a 5 percent rollback in player salaries, changes in entry-level salaries, and revenue sharing.
"I continue to be skeptical with respect to what type of proposal we'll get," Daly said. "We would hope that they would make a proposal that would meaningfully address the issues that we've identified."
Several weeks ago, the NHL presented six concepts. The NHLPA rejected all of them and characterized them as salary-cap proposals. Talks then shifted to the individual teams and away from the issues that are philosophically keeping the sides apart.
"All of the players want to play hockey this season and we've offered concessions worth hundreds of millions of dollars in savings to the owners in order to avoid a lockout," Saskin said.
The NHL contends the players' association merely wants to maintain the status quo.
"I couldn't tell you that we're further along in the process toward a resolution today than we were two weeks ago when we started this process," Daly said.
The NHLPA said owners are willing to lose a full season. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman already has said he couldn't be persuaded to adopt a luxury tax plan in his attempt to establish "cost certainty." Bettman is determined to make sure the percentage of revenues paid in player salaries is sliced.
An economic study commissioned by the NHL found players get 75 percent of league revenues -- far more than the percentage for the other major team sports. The players' association has challenged many of the league's findings.
If there is a lockout, it could prove worse than the one that lasted 103 days and cut the 1994-95 season nearly in half. Owners have been preparing for that possibility the last several years and have built a $300 million war chest.
"The players are ready to sit out as long as it takes to get a fair deal," Saskin said. "They are not going to be pushed around into accepting an unfair deal through an owners' lockout."
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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