NEW YORK (AP) - After a one-day return to the negotiating table, NHL players and owners hope meetings within their own ranks with two new proposals in hand will help provide a breakthrough ahead of the looming lockout.
The NHL Players’ Association delivered a new offer on Wednesday at the league’s office and then received a counterproposal from Commissioner Gary Bettman that was hastily drawn up when he wasn’t impressed with what he was given.
If the sides can’t reach a deal by Saturday night, when the current collective bargaining agreement expires, the owners’ latest offer will be pulled back, and Bettman will call for a second lockout in eight years. The last one wiped out the entire 2004-05 season.
“There’s no work that’s supposed to be performed on Sunday or Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday,” NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr said. “We treat the deadline as real. They’ve said it’s real, and I’m prepared to take Gary at his word about that. No reason not to.
“I would just remind everybody that a lockout is a choice. It doesn’t have to be made.”
About 275 NHL players descended on New York for a union meeting that began Wednesday night and was expected to finish on Thursday afternoon. The NHL Board of Governors also will meet in New York on Thursday, but Bettman said nothing dramatic is expected to take place.
Bettman said he already has the authority to call for a lockout as soon as the current agreement expires at the end of Sept. 15.
Industry revenue has grown from $2.1 billion to $3.3 billion annually under the expiring deal. Owners asked players to cut their share of hockey related revenue during a six-year proposal. Players are concerned management hasn’t addressed the league’s problems by re-examining the teams’ revenue-sharing format.
Though the NHL and its players now agree on what qualifies as hockey-related revenue, they still haven’t figured out how to split the money the sport generates.
The owners’ streamlined counteroffer kept the same definition of what makes up hockey related revenue, and raised the percentage given to players from the previous proposal of 46 percent. Initially, the NHL sought to drop the number from the current 57 percent to 43 percent.
“That’s good,” Philadelphia Flyers forward Danny Briere said of the agreed-upon definition, “but let’s wait and see if there’s not other tricks hidden in there.”
After the players made their offer Wednesday, Bettman met with Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, and Murray Edwards of the Calgary Flames to craft a new NHL offer that was handed back to the players’ association with a shelf life on it.
“What we tried to do was simplify the process,” Bettman said. “It was clear that we weren’t on the same page or talking the same language, so our proposal was an attempt to simplify what we were negotiating over and do it while making additional movement in the hopes that that could spur meaningful negotiations before the weekend.”
This was the first formal negotiating session since Aug. 31. No new meetings were immediately scheduled, but both sides expected to talk again no later than Thursday after their respective internal meetings.
Fehr said the union’s new proposal was “consistent” with the last one it submitted. The league responded with a counter, and Fehr, despite the developments, admitted he does not “know whether this will lead to anything.”
“We did not make a proposal which mirrored the owners’ proposal,” Fehr said. “We did not say let’s go back to when we didn’t have a salary cap. We said, `Look, there is a meaningful disparity in revenue between the teams, and in recognition of that, there is a way we think we can fix the system so we don’t end up in the same problem all over again.
“If you look at what happened in all the cap sports … it doesn’t matter what the sport is, and it doesn’t matter what the claimed economics are, the proposal is always the same: it is always players will take a lot less money, and if not we will lock you out. It’s regrettable, but that is the world we seem to live in.”
The NHL has backed off its previous demand of a 24 percent cut on all existing contracts _ a key component of the deal that ended the season-long lockout in 2005 _ but the league is seeking cuts in other ways to make up for that.
“We’re not asking for a rollback,” Bettman said. “We have said that our proposal _ the one that is time-sensitive _ would have a phase-in, and while it contemplates the possible reduction in player share, if you use our estimates it would be under 10 percent. If you use the players’ association’s estimate on revenue growth, it would actually be 7 percent.
“When you factor all of that in, it seems to me that having a work stoppage and damaging (hockey-related revenue) long term really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
Fehr conceded that the phase-in does slow the rate the players would absorb cuts, but not in a significant manner.
“The phase-in in the first year would hit the players a little bit less than the full phase-in, it would reduce the share from 57 to 49 rather than from 57 to 47,” he said. “While it is accurate in a sense that the owners’ proposal does not take quite as much money from the players, somebody might say that they’ve moved from an extraordinary large amount to a really very big amount.”
As he has all along, Bettman insisted that the league will not operate the upcoming season under the current economic plan, and cited damage that will result from an impending lockout as the reason why the current offer won’t be viable after this weekend.
“What we would be prepared to do now to make a deal before there is extensive damage is not the same that we will be prepared to do in the event we get to a point where we have suffered the damage,” Bettman said. “We looked at their proposal. It was clear that there wasn’t very much movement at all.”
Elsewhere, the union filed an application with Quebec’s labor relations board, along with at least 16 Montreal Canadiens, asking it to declare a lockout illegal in the province. A hearing on the application is scheduled for Friday.
“The players don’t want to see hockey interrupted,” Fehr said. “We believe under Quebec law, a lockout would not be appropriate and would not be legal, so we are asserting that position. We would like to think that is consistent with the interests of the fans and eventually consistent with the interests of the owners.
“We’ll let the legal proceedings take care of themselves.”
What makes this week unusual _ in addition to the looming deadline _ is the number of players on hand. It will indeed be the offseason’s biggest show of force. Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby, one of the league’s biggest stars, is one of them. He skated on Tuesday with some of his Penguins teammates in suburban Pittsburgh before traveling to New York.
“We’re not in position to make a judgment as to whether this is going to be productive. We have to wait and see,” Fehr said. “Every day is in some sense more important than the last one.
“You can only make a deal when people are ready to make a deal.”
If one isn’t struck by midnight on Saturday night, the start of the regular season will be in immediate jeopardy. The season is scheduled to open on Oct. 11. Players would begin missing paychecks four days later.