Though union leader Donald Fehr and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman plan to meet next week, neither of the parties involved wanted to say when serious labour negotiations will begin between the NHL and the NHL Players' Association.
Fehr said Saturday he meets regularly with Bettman and their next get-together should not be seen as the formal commencement of talks about a new collective agreement. Before the serious talks begin, Fehr said, a series of preliminary discussions about logistics and an informal list of issues need to be held. He thinks that will happen in the next couple of weeks but did not want to say when the major talks will begin.
The current agreement expires on Sept. 15 and there is much speculation serious talks between the owners and the players will not start until then or later. However when Fehr was asked if the negotiations would not start until the current season ends he said, "no, I wouldn't say that."
Neither Fehr nor Bettman would discuss what each felt were the major issues. Bettman said he only hopes they can reach an agreement quickly once the talks begin.
"My hope is that we can reason together and that collective bargaining will be painless and quiet and quick," Bettman said following an NHL board of governors meetinf. "That would serve everyone's best interest."
Union sources say a quick resolution is possible but only if the players present a united front to the owners. That might be enough to convince the owners to avoid a lockout, which could severely damage a league that is still recovering in some markets from the season-long lockout in 2004-05.
The two biggest issues involve revenue sharing. The owners want to reduce the players' take of hockey-related revenue from the current 57 per cent to less than 50 to mirror the agreements recently reached in the NFL and NBA. The players want the owners to radically change their system for sharing revenues between richer and poorer teams and increase the amount of shared revenue.
Fehr said just because the NBA and NFL players agreed to reduce their overall share of league revenue it does not mean the NHL players will follow suit.
"From my own standpoint? Obviously I hope we don't go down that road because we saw what happened in the other sports," Fehr said.
He also pointed out Major League Baseball still does not have a hard salary cap like the other three major professional leagues in North America, which could be taken as a hint the NHL players could push for the elimination of the salary cap. This, too, could be an ominous sign a lockout or strike could happen but Fehr did not want to go that far.
"I'm simply going to point out there were three negotiations," he said. "The third one was baseball. There are no caps [in baseball] There is much more sophisticated and detailed revenue sharing. They went through the third negotiation in a row without a stoppage, the second one without even a hint or suggestion of it, without deadlines being set by anybody. Baseball is far and away, on a labor-relations standpoint, the most stable of the four. There's no question about it at this stage.
"So if you're going to look for role models of what you might want to emulate, I'm suggesting not to eliminate it from the analysis. It's easy to say they did this in football, they did this in basketball. Gary [Bettman]came from basketball so obviously that's what he's going to do."
Fehr also said it is difficult to compare the four professional sports because the economics of each one are different.
"The ownership is different, the nature of the sport is different, the economics of the four sports are different," he said. "We use the same words like free agency, arbitration, revenue sharing, but they don't mean the same thing between sport to sport or even contract to contract. So let's be a little careful."
Fehr also said formal talks cannot begin until the players get more financial information from the league. He said the information they do have, which is mostly about hockey-related revenue and the owners' player costs, appears to be accurate but the union still needs more information about the league's other expenses.
"There's significant information we don't have," Fehr said. "Profit, loss and those kinds of things rest on the overall operation. You can segregate the player costs as if that was everything.
"All I can tell you at this point is when you get into bargaining and you try and figure out what the issues are going to be and how you frame responses and make proposals, one of the things you'd like to have is a comprehensive understanding of the money flow on all the issues. That makes things vastly easier"
In other league business, the Columbus Blue Jackets were awarded the 2013 NHL all-star game and Bettman gave the owners an update on the ownership situations for the New Jersey Devils, St. Louis Blues and Phoenix Coyotes.
Bettman said the league is trying to get either co-owner of the Devils, Jeff Vanderbeek and Ray Chambers, to take complete control of the financially-troubled team. He also said the NHL is not directly subsidizing the Devils so the team can make its payroll, but implied they are receiving advances on their share of league revenues such as television and merchandising. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly later confirmed the league is giving those advances to the Devils.
There is still no sale of the Coyotes in sight. Bettman said the situation remains "a work in progress." He also took a shot at Glendale Mayor Elaine Scruggs, who recently complained the NHL is making the sale difficult because it will not drop its asking price of $170-million (U.S.). Bettman has promised the governors they will recover all the money the league put into the team since buying it out of bankruptcy in October, 2009.
"The mayor's not really well informed on the status of transactions," Bettman said.
The governors were also told the sale of the St. Louis Blues to a group led by minority owner Tom Stillman is expected to close in a couple of months.