NEW YORK -- If the NHL season is to begin on time, it will happen with a new collective bargaining agreement in place -- not with replacement players.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Wednesday that the season won't start in October if a new agreement hasn't been reached with the union, but left open the possibility that replacement players would be considered if no deal is struck.
The league continues to plan on having hockey in October, Bettman said.
"If we do not have a new collective bargaining agreement, we will not open the season on time," Bettman said. "If that is an eventuality at that juncture, we will have to start again on what options we will pursue."
The likelihood of replacement players taking the ice has diminished greatly since the last board meeting on March 1.
At that time, Bettman and several team representatives stressed that they expected next season to begin on time. The goal has always been to make a deal with the union, but it was clear that other options were being considered.
Replacement players appeared to be the most plausible alternative.
But having become the first major sports league in North America to lose an entire season to a labor dispute, the NHL doesn't seem anxious to jump into that scenario -- yet.
"We have stayed out of the replacement player debate since we thought it was a poorly conceived and ill-advised strategy," Bob
Goodenow, the executive director of the players' association, said in a statement. "Finally, it appears the league has come to realize it would be bad for the fans, the sport and the business.
"The NHL should focus its efforts on reaching an agreement with the players."
Bettman was adamant that the board was as unified as ever and said there was plenty of support for all scenarios should a deal with the union fall out of reach.
"We made it clear that we were going to explore all our options," Bettman said. "Exploring your options, doesn't mean you're doing it or not doing it. It doesn't mean it's a good idea or bad idea."
Bettman wouldn't even use the term replacements, choosing "new players" instead.
He didn't set a deadline for a deal and he hasn't expressed one to Bob Goodenow, the executive director of the players' association. The lockout was imposed last Sept. 16 after the expiration of the previous agreement with the union.
Representatives from all 30 NHL teams met in New York for the second time in seven weeks.
"It was really just a far-reaching discussion of all the alternatives and updating us," said Richard Peddie, the president of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment. "In the end, everyone agreed 'let's keep focusing on trying to get a deal."'
Both the NHL and the players' association said that no progress was made during a six-hour negotiating session on Tuesday.
That was the fifth trip to the table for the sides since the season was called off in February. Bettman said he was going to call Goodenow later Wednesday to set up a series of meetings.
NHL chief legal officer Bill Daly said he was hoping to set up a schedule of multiple meetings per week over the next couple of weeks. Negotiations could even take place in Austria, where the hockey world championship will be held from April 30-May 15.
"They're inching toward an agreement," Dallas Stars president Jim Lites said. "We're on the same page. We're talking concepts that maybe a year ago were pretty foreign to both sides."
In an April 4 meeting, the union came up with an idea that addresses the relationship between player costs and league revenues.
The concept, discussed extensively Tuesday, contains an upper and lower salary cap that would float among the teams depending on revenues from year to year. Financially successful years would increase the thresholds, but poor seasons would lower them.
Where the numbers fall and what the range would be is not close to being agreed upon.
"The union said for as long as anyone can remember that they'll never, ever, ever agree to a cap, but is now negotiating a cap. That's the good news," Bettman said. "The bad news is there is no economic reality to what we need. But at least now we're in a negotiating session where it's dollars and cents."
The union never wanted a system that tied league revenues to player costs. It dropped its aversion to a salary cap when the NHL said it would consider a de-linked proposal.
It was then that the players' association said it would accept a salary cap.
But all NHL offers that don't provide cost certainty for its clubs have been pulled off the table.
The topic of revenue sharing -- what the players' association contends is a key to any deal -- was not broached by the board of governors on Wednesday.
Nor was the subject of the draft, and what team will have the chance to pick Canadian phenom Sidney Crosby with the first selection.
"For Gary to say the negotiations are now only a matter of dollars and cents is both simplistic and misleading," Goodenow said. "There continue to be a myriad of issues to address, including player rights and system issues that impact the daily lives and careers of players, the way the game is played and marketed, and the growing financial disparities between clubs in a league with no meaningful revenue sharing.
"There is a lot of work to do, which will only get done once the NHL demonstrates a real desire to have meaningful negotiations."
The league is still negotiating with ESPN, which has until June
1 to decide whether to exercise its option to broadcast games next