This was pretty much inevitable, but the differences between the NHL owners and the players in their negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement got its clearest articulation in the remarks by both Gary Bettman and Don Fehr following Thursday’s talks in New York.
In that session, the players presented their objections to the owners’ proposed system of revenue sharing.
Asked how far apart the sides are, Fehr responded, “There’s a meaningful gulf there.”
Bettman said, “We obviously have a wide gap to bridge on a whole host of issues.”
With both sides acknowledging after the two-hour meeting that they are looking at the next CBA in very different terms, the chances of the season beginning as scheduled in October seems dimmer now than at any time since discussions began last month.
And while Fehr has said on numerous occasions, and again on Thursday, that there’s nothing legally preventing the players from going to training camp and starting the season without a contract, and “if there is a lockout, someone has to choose to do that,” Bettman’s remarks seemed to lean toward making that choice.
“I re-confirmed something that the union has been told multiple times over the last nine to 12 months,” Bettman told reporters. “Namely, that time is getting short and the owners are not prepared to operate under this collective bargaining agreement for another season, so we need to get to making a deal and doing it soon. And we believe there’s ample time for the parties to get together and make a deal and that’s what we’re going to be working towards.”
Asked if Sept. 15 is a hard deadline, Bettman responded, “Our efforts are going to be devoted to trying to make a deal.” He then reiterated that owners have no desire to operate under the current CBA.
But NHL spokesman Frank Brown said in an e-mail to Eben Novy-Williams of Bloomberg News that it was “not wrong” to interpret Bettman’s remarks as implying the NHL would lock out its players without a new deal. Brown stressed, however, that Bettman never referred directly to a lockout in his remarks. But the implication was clear.
(In The Gazette, Pat Hickey writes that Bettman’s legacy as commissioner could likely be one of work stoppages.)
In the talks Thursday, the NHLPA made a presentation directly related to the owners’ proposed revenue sharing system which the NHL linked to their proposed new salary cap that would cut the player’s share of revenue from the current 57 percent of revenues to somewhere between 46 percent and 42 percent. As Fehr said, “It didn’t look to us like (the owner’s suggested form of revenue sharing) was the way to go.”
Their primary objection? After examining league’s proposal, the PA determined the money the league planned to distribute to the less-wealthy clubs would, in practical terms, not be funded by the wealthy clubs but from the money derived via cutting players salaries. “The most important thing from our standpoint is that, essentially, all the revenue sharing payments made by individual teams they get back, and then some, in reduced player salary,” Fehr said.
“We’re not close on that issue (revenue sharing),” Bettman agreed, “and frankly revenue sharing is part of the bigger economic picture.” From the owners’ point of view, that bigger picture focuses on salary reduction. “The fundamental proposal, our initial proposal, is that we need to be paying out less in player costs,” Bettman said. Lowering players salaries make up, in Bettman’s words, “the fundamental economics” of the owners’ position.
So the two sides differ philosophically on how to solve the league’s purported economic problems, a league that has experienced record revenue growth in the past seven years.
And this all comes before the NHLPA has even presented their counter-proposal to the NHL’s proposal, one in which revenue sharing will doubtless be a central component. Fehr said that presentation will come next Tuesday in Toronto.