NEW YORK – The NHL and the players’ association are further apart than ever before.
Union executive director Donald Fehr began the first of his two news conferences Thursday night by proclaiming he believed the sides had agreements on such issues as actual dollars, and then returned moments later to reveal the NHL rejected everything his side offered.
Hot-button topics such as the “make-whole” provision on existing contracts not only weren’t settled, but are no longer being offered by the league. Forget that owners were willing to pay up to $300 million to cover the costs, and Commissioner Gary Bettman countered by saying the entire concept is off the table – along with everything else the league offered during the previous two days of talks.
“They knew there was a major gulf between us and yet they came down here and told you we were close,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said about Fehr’s remarks.
When the NHL agreed to increase its make-whole offer of deferred payments from $211 million to $300 million it was part of a proposed package that required the union to agree on three nonnegotiable points. Instead, the players’ association accepted the raise in funds, but then made counterproposals on the issues the league stated had no wiggle room.
That ended Thursday’s long-awaited meeting after just an hour and sent the NHL negotiating team back to the league office.
“I am disappointed beyond belief,” Bettman said.
The sides won’t meet face-to-face again before Saturday at the earliest. While Bettman insisted that a drop-dead date to have a deal that would preserve a season with “integrity” hasn’t been established – even internally – clearly there isn’t a whole lot of time to work out an agreement.
“I’m surprised,” Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby said. “We feel like we moved in their direction.”
The 2004-05 season was lost completely before the players’ association accepted a deal that included a salary cap for the first time. While no major philosophical issues such as that exist in these negotiations, the sides still don’t appear to be ready to come to an agreement.
“It looks like this is not going to be resolved in the immediate future,” Fehr said.
As he was painting a positive picture as far as the closeness of the fighting sides, Daly was calling Fehr’s brother, Steve – the union’s special counsel – to say that the NHL was rejecting the players’ counteroffer. Once the union was unwilling to accept the league’s three main conditions, everything else didn’t matter.
“Not only is it unusual, I would be hard-pressed to think of anything comparable in my experience,” Steve Fehr said of the instant rejection.
The NHL wants to limit personal player contracts to five years, and has elevated the issue to the highest level of importance.
“It’s the hill we will die on,” said Daly, who added that the owners were “insulted” by the players’ response to the owners’ offer Wednesday night.
The union countered with an offer of an eight-year maximum length with the variable in salary being no greater than a 25 percent difference between the highest-paid year of the deal and the lowest.
Talks resumed Tuesday night with owners and players in the room, and Bettman and Donald Fehr on the outside. It sparked what seemed to be the most optimistic developments in the lockout that has now lasted 82 days.
But the tenor began to change Wednesday, and discourse erupted on a wild Thursday night that featured three news conferences in the span of an hour. The sides went from not wanting to say much of anything Wednesday to not being able to stop voicing their opinions Thursday.
When the players suggested Wednesday night that they wanted Donald Fehr to rejoin the process Thursday, the NHL informed them that his inclusion could be a “deal-breaker.”
“We thought we were getting close. There was definitely movement toward each other,” Winnipeg Jets defenseman Ron Hainsey said. “As confident as some of us players are in the issues, we cannot close deals. I’d love to think I could, we cannot.”
Donald and Steve Fehr were in Thursday’s session, as were Daly and lead league counsel Bob Batterman. None of the six owners who attended the meetings Tuesday and Wednesday were present, though some players were.
Steve Fehr and a number of players stood in the back of the room with arms folded as Bettman and Daly stood at the podium to present the league’s position.
There were already signs the process was breaking down earlier Thursday when the union requested that federal mediators rejoin the discussions. A similar request was turned down by the league earlier this week. Mediators previously were unsuccessful in creating a breakthrough after two days of discussions last week.
Without mediation, and the NHL’s preference to keep Donald Fehr away from the table, the players became a bit miffed.
Negotiations resumed a little after 2 p.m. Wednesday and proceeded in fits and starts as the league and the players’ association searched for an agreement. As they had the day before, talks went deep into the night, breaking two hours for dinner before finishing in the early morning hours.
One point of contention is the length of a new contract, with owners looking for a 10-year pact, and players wanting a shorter term – perhaps five years. The league also is seeking to limit the length of individual player contracts to five years.
Some hope emerged Tuesday in the first round of talks that kept Bettman on the outside along with Fehr, while six owners and about 18 players talked inside. The positive feeling carried over into Wednesday morning when various team executives said they heard good reports during an NHL board of governors meeting.
“Regrettably, we have been unable to close the divide on some critical issues that we feel are essential to the immediate and long-term health of our game,” Winnipeg Jets chairman Mark Chipman said in a statement released by the NHL. “While I sense there are some members of the players association that understand our perspective on these issues, clearly there are many that don’t.”
The sides are trying to avoid another lost season. The NHL became the first North American professional sports league to cancel a full year because of a labor dispute back in 2005. The deal reached then was in place until this September, and the lockout was enacted on Sept. 16 after that agreement expired.
All games through Dec. 14, along with the New Year’s Day Winter Classic and the All-Star game, have been wiped off the schedule so far.