NEW YORK — The NHL and the locked-out players are talking again, just not for very long.
After an eight-day wait between bargaining sessions — as hockey remained on ice — negotiations resumed Monday night at the league office, but were over in less than two hours. There wasn’t any visible anger between the sides when talks wrapped up for the night, and both camps spoke optimistically that discussions would continue soon, perhaps face-to-face again as soon as Tuesday.
“We will be in touch with them in the morning,” union executive director Donald Fehr said on a chilly Manhattan sidewalk Monday night. “It’s certainly a good possibility of it. I would say it’s more likely than not.”
The only question is when — or whether —one side will say something the other really wants to hear. These negotiations have been going for a while, yet there hasn’t been any kind of breakthrough to pave the way to a deal that would allow the already shortened hockey season to get started.
The lockout entered its 65th day on Monday and has already wiped out 327 games. More cancellations could be coming soon, but the NHL hasn’t said when another such announcement might be coming. For now the focus is still on trying to get a deal as quickly as possible.
Both sides know the lockout has inflicted a lot of damage on the sport that produced record revenues of over $3 billion last season. Every day of lost time is hurting everyone, and at some point owners and players will have to decide how much of the losses each side will have to absorb.
“I think every week is important in the process,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. “I don’t attach a particular significance to this week over last week or next week. I want to play tomorrow.”
Not a whole lot was accomplished on Monday, but the sides at least looked forward to the next time they will get together.
“We talked about various things,” Fehr said. “No new proposals were made, they were not expected to be made. We had hoped to engage them in a discussion about the player contracting issues that are so important to the players. At least tonight they were unwilling to do that.”
The league contends that it is waiting for the players to present a full proposal on all the major issues — including core economics and player contracting, which deals with the entry-level system, arbitration and free agency. After the request was made, the players’ association asked for a break and the meeting adjourned soon after.
“We’ve never heard a full proposal from them,” Daly said. “They have given us a variation of the same proposal on economics a couple of times and there was no change in that position. They are still suggesting that they are moving in our direction on economics, but until we know exactly what their position is on economics now, we think it’s all tied together and would like to hear it all together.
“It’s our position that we’ve made a couple comprehensive proposals in a row. We’d like to know where they are on all of the issues. We asked that they put together a comprehensive proposal for us to consider.”
Union representatives, along with 18 players who were in attendance, returned to the players’ association office to have further internal discussions Monday night. Those could stretch into Tuesday, when the sides are expected to at least talk by phone. Another face-to-face meeting could take place Tuesday, or perhaps on Wednesday.
It is unclear if talks will continue through the Thanksgiving holiday if any momentum is generated in the earlier part of the week.
The players tried to put the focus on player-contract issues on Monday night before returning to specific revenue and economic areas, but the NHL wasn’t interested in that because the league considers everything to be intertwined.
Neither side wants to agree to anything, or make concessions in one single area, without knowing how those will affect other parts of the CBA that still needs to be negotiated.
“Our position all along has been on the player contracting issues that they become considerably more important to players as the cap becomes limited,” Fehr said. “We made proposals in a couple of areas in this regard, which moved toward them, but we wanted to talk about the rest of these to see where we were. We indicated to them the last time we met and again today that if we put aside for a moment the effect of the lockout on revenues — we didn’t think we were too far apart on the share — and if that was right we can back into a discussion on the revenues. We wanted to know where we were on the player contracting stuff first, and they were unwilling to do that — at least tonight.”
Fehr said the NHLPA would consider the NHL’s request for a full proposal, and try to figure out what the next step will be. No one would say if they thought such an offer would come Tuesday.
After turning down a suggestion from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to take a two-week break from negotiations, the union requested another meeting with the league.
“We could’ve taken a couple of weeks off, I suppose,” Fehr said. “It’s hard for me to see how you make an agreement if you aren’t talking, so you talk. Sometimes it doesn’t lead anywhere, and perhaps very often it doesn’t lead anywhere, but if you aren’t talking it’s 100 percent sure it doesn’t lead anywhere.
“They were willing to have the meeting if we said we wanted to meet. That is about as far as I can go.”
Daly said the NHL is always willing to listen if the players have something meaningful to say.
“We’re never going to shut down the process,” he said. “If they think there is a reason to meet and we can make progress, we’re happy to meet. That’s what we told them and that’s what led to today’s meeting.”
It was the first bargaining session since Nov. 11, when a busy week of negotiating wrapped up with a session that lasted just over an hour and didn’t produce any results. All games through Nov. 30 and the New Year’s Day Winter Classic have been called off.
One area in which the NHL hasn’t budged is in the area of guaranteed dollars to players.
“If their proposal continues to be a guaranteed amount of player-share dollars, we have told them that that is not a proposal that is acceptable to us or would ever to be acceptable to our owners right now,” Daly said. “If that continues to be where we are, we are a long way apart.”
Frustration is building on both sides, and it has spilled over in recent days. The NHL has placed a gag order on its personnel throughout the league, but players are free to speak out, and are welcome to attend any bargaining sessions.
The latest verbal shot toward Bettman and Daly came on Monday when Florida Panthers forward Kris Versteeg was interviewed on a Toronto radio station.
“You’ve got to look for the cancers and you’ve got to cut out the cancers,” Versteeg said. “I think when you look at Bill Daly and Gary Bettman, they’ve been looting this game for far too long.”
Those remarks came on the heels of Detroit Red Wings defenseman Ian White, referring to the commissioner as an “idiot.”
Daly publicly brushed aside the comments and chalked them up to aggravation that is being felt on both sides of the lockout.
“I don’t think either Gary or I take those personally,” Daly said. “I understand there is a lot of frustration in this process. I’m frustrated in terms of being where we are and not playing hockey. I think that’s just human nature.”
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