Second meeting in a week yields little

Updated: March 17, 2005, 8:12 PM ET
Associated Press

When the NHL canceled the season, the league warned players that future offers wouldn't be as good as those that were rejected.

There was proof of that Thursday.

During a 2½-hour bargaining session in New York, the NHL gave the players' association two six-year proposals: one with a tie between league revenues and player costs and one without. So far, the union isn't interested in either.

A source close to the negotiations told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity that the "de-linked" offer contained a hard cap of $37.5 million per team, $5 million less than commissioner Gary Bettman's final, nonnegotiable proposal made on Feb. 15 -- the night before he called off the season.

Back then, the players responded with a soft-cap offer of $49 million. So, as far apart as the sides were then, the gap was wider Thursday.

The NHL, however, did make some concessions. The new offer included a minimum payroll of $22.5 million and provided a mechanism to negotiate the cap upward if there was certain revenue success, the source said.

Both proposals include the players' offer of a 24 percent rollback on existing contracts.

The removal of linkage was what got the union to agree for the first time to accept a salary cap. But a deal was never close to being reached, and a mid-ground number was never offered by either side.

"The proposals we saw today were actually worse in content than ones we had previously rejected," players' association senior director Ted Saskin told the AP from Toronto.

Once the season was wiped out, both sides said all offers were off the table. But the NHL reinstated a proposal without linkage, and gave it a short shelf life.

"De-linked means we're taking some financial risk and exposure," NHL chief legal officer Bill Daly told the AP. "As more damage is done and it becomes more unpredictable as to what our revenues will be, our willingness to entertain and accept that exposure and risk becomes less and less."

There is no question the league would like to have a collective bargaining agreement with linkage to ensure "cost certainty" for its 30 clubs. That was the basis of the second offer Thursday in which players would be guaranteed 54 percent of league revenues, the source said.

The offers also dealt with issues such as the entry-level system, qualifying offers, salary arbitration, and free agency.

Only 20 minutes of Thursday's meeting were spent together, the time it took the NHL to lay out its proposals. The players' association spent the rest of the session in caucus, Daly said.

The executive committee of the players' association will meet for several days next week, a gathering that was scheduled before this latest round of talks.

"We will be determining our next steps and responding at the appropriate time," NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow said.

The union wasn't looking to return to the bargaining table so quickly after the cancellation of the season and said it saw nothing positive in firing similar proposals back and forth.

"We're going to do some brainstorming and see if we can come up with some other approaches," Saskin said. "We believe that the main objective that they're trying to achieve is to meaningfully reduce their player costs and put additional restraints on teams when they negotiate player contracts. There are a number of ways these types of objectives can be addressed."

The NHL wants to have a deal done in time to hold the draft on schedule in June and relaunch the league with fresh new rules aimed at opening up the game and generating more fan excitement.

"We told them if they wanted to pursue negotiations of a de-linked salary cap, then we would need to do that pretty quickly and reach an agreement in the next several weeks," Daly said.

The NHL already lagged in popularity among the four major North American sports before becoming the first of the leagues to lose an entire season to a labor dispute.

The draft can't be held without an agreement with the players' association. If talks continue to fail, the NHL might seek to have a labor impasse declared. If successful, the league could try to implement its own system and open training camps in the fall with replacement players.

That will be a topic again when the league's board of governors meets April 20. That plan was one of several up for discussion when the board convened March 1 in New York.

"We had provided each of the clubs with workbooks where we asked them to give us a lot of different information -- projections, scenarios," Daly said. "We expect to receive that information back from the clubs by the end of this month and we'll process that.

"Then we'll be in a better position to discuss business alternatives come April 20."

Last Friday, the league and players' association met in Toronto for 90 minutes. That meeting wasn't really meant for specific bargaining purposes, but more to set the tone for upcoming discussions.

"What we're looking at is what the right system can be for the players on a going forward basis," Saskin said. "Not just as a snapshot at a given point in time, but how players are treated in a market over a period of a new CBA."

This was the third trip to the bargaining table for the sides since the season was canceled. They got together three days later, without Bettman and Goodenow, in an attempt to end the cancellation. But those efforts -- highlighted by input from Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux -- were futile.

Bettman and Goodenow were present for the past two negotiating sessions.

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press