NHL CBA talks resume with some positive signs

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NHLPA leader Donald Fehr said he's trying to find a bridge between the two sides in the stalled CBA negotiations. (Sitthixay Ditthavong/AP)


By Stu Hackel

With eight days to go until their collective bargaining agreement expires on Sept. 15, representatives of the NHL owners and players ended a week-long hiatus in talks on Friday in New York. Actually, as Chris Stevenson reported in The Ottawa Sun on Thursday, there were preliminary discussions on Wednesday, so the parties weren't exactly giving each other the silent treatment during the past seven days.

Neither side divulged much of what has been said recently other than that they'll keep talking, starting Friday afternoon at 5:30 (and I'll update this post during the weekend with any significant developments).

SATURDAY UPDATE: The sides met twice on Friday, once in the morning and again late in the afternoon. Gary Bettman and NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly represented the owners; Executive Director Don Fehr, his brother Steve (an advisor for the PA), as well as Wild center Zenon Konopka, Jets defenseman Ron Hainsey and Sabres defenseman Robyn Regehr were there for the union. Daly and Steve Fehr spoke again briefly on Saturday and TSN said they may talk again on Sunday. Larry Brooks of The New York Post wrote, "Neither party reported progress had been made in narrowing the substantial arithmetic and philosophical gaps between the league and the players association during the pair of two-hour sessions (on Friday) in which it is believed that each side essentially re-stated its case."

That shouldn't be taken to mean that they aren't trying to reach some understandings, if not yet an agreement; Fehr was quoted by Tom Gulitti of The Bergen Record as saying the sides were "each going to do some work" between the two Friday sessions. Brooks quoted Don Fehr as saying, “We talked about the core economic issues and I expect that the discussions will continue....It’s always constructive to have dialogue.”

Gary Bettman made a similar statement, quoted by TSN as saying, "We'd like to make a deal. There is an ebb and flow to negotiations. It's always good to have dialogue."

Gulitti sums up the situation this way: "The players, obviously, don’t want another lockout and, though the owners are the ones threatening it, they really don’t want it either because of the momentum the league has built since the last one. So, unlike in 2004, when the owners were intent on getting a salary cap no matter the cost, there is genuine interest in trying to find some common ground. It will still take significant movement on both ends, however, for that to happen."

Another update note from Saturday can be found below.

If you're looking on the bright side of this, well, the fact that they are talking is encouraging. They aren't going to make a deal if they don't talk. And, as we've noted before, it can sometimes be taken as a positive when the negotiators reveal little about the substance of their talks. It's when they sharply disagree that the public hears the details.

Of course, no news does not guarantee good news either. This remains a very complex negotiation, far more nuanced than the last CBA (Ken Campbell of The Hockey News has some interesting thoughts on that you might want to read). But the real sticking point remains the owners belief that the agreement they foisted upon the players in 2005 is not rigorous enough, the game's economics don't work for enough teams, and they need further concessions. Meanwhile, the players believe they made sufficient sacrifices when they went back to work following the last lockout, are reluctant to concede any more, and that the owners bear some responsibility for their problems and should look internally for a fix.

Each side has proposed a way for the business to go forward. The owners suggested all sorts of measures designed with one thing in mind: cutting player salaries. The players suggested a new business model, one in which temporary concessions give way to restored salary levels, and for enhanced revenue sharing among the teams with the players proposing a "partnership" through their salary cuts between themselves and the high revenue clubs to help the struggling franchises. While they have made some moves toward each other, fundamental differences between these visions remain and bridging the gap is, not surprisingly, proving difficult.

So even though the sides are talking again, they are simultaneously preparing for the worst. As has been widely reported, the NHL Board of Governors will meet next Thursday, Sept. 13 when Commissioner Gary Bettman will provide them with an update and ask them to vote on whether the players should be locked out if there is no agreement by that Saturday. It's no longer business as usual -- the Bruins, for example, announced Friday they would cancel their rookie camp, scheduled to start prior to training camp. Training camp remains a go -- for the moment, at least.

SATURDAY UPDATE 2: One interesting development out of Western Canada: Scott Cruickshank of The Calgary Herald reported on Saturday the NHLPA filed a challenge Friday at the Alberta Labour Relations Board aimed at preventing the Flames and Oilers from locking out those players. Under Alberta labour law, the NHL cannot hold a lockout vote unless it has first requested a mediator. The league did request a mediator and the province appointed one on Aug. 21. But the NHLPA argues in its challenge that the league showed no willingness to participate in the mediation. "According to the union," Cruickshank writes, "the process, at the NHL’s insistence, was halted after only three days — without a single meeting between the sides. Law requires a 14-day wait for the mediator. Boiled down — the NHLPA is contending that the league, in its eagerness to clear the way for a Sept. 15 lockout, failed to take certain preliminary steps and then rushed through the process, all of which renders it defective. Meaning a lockout vote should not be permitted."

Former NHL defenseman Mathieu Schneider, the NHLPA’s special assistant Don Fehr, said Friday, “The players are committed to finding a way to reach an agreement without a lockout, and we are hopeful that the Alberta Labour Relations Board will assist in these efforts.” A hearing is scheduled in Edmonton on the PA's challenge next week. It's uncertain what a finding in favor of the players in Alberta would mean elsewhere in Canada or in the U.S.

Rick Westhead in The Toronto Star reported Friday that the NHLPA similarly attempted to have the Ontario government mediate the differences between the players and owners, but last week, the provincial Ministry of Labour rejected the request. “We were hoping that the province would take an active role and help us and the league try to reach an agreement so we could have hockey this fall,” Alexandra Dagg, director of operations with the NHLPA, told Westhead. Daly, who attended the meeting with the labour ministry, told Westhead, “Our view is that the union’s request was a pretext in an attempt to create a technical impediment to the implementation of a lockout.” Westhead reported that Daly told him the league has already met and retained representatives with a mediation service in Washington that has previously worked on hockey labour negotiations: “They are monitoring our ongoing discussions,” Daly said.

The NHLPA is, similarly, communicating with its membership, as Kevin Allen reported inUSA Today on Thursday, explaining what will occur if the owners lock the players out and what options they have. And the PA will hold two days of meetings with its members next week as well.

Additionally, teams are beginning to contact their season ticket holders and business partners, as the Winnipeg Jets did in an email TSN obtained that was sent from True North president and CEO Jim Ludlow and senior vice president of sales and marketing Norva Riddell.

"Although it is the League's objective to successfully conclude negotiations for the new Agreement by September 15th, it is possible this may not occur," it read. "In the event a new Agreement is not reached in this timeframe, and a work stoppage ensues, the Winnipeg Jets' training camp could be postponed, and there is the potential for preseason and regular season games to be cancelled.

"The purpose of this letter is therefore threefold: (1) to ensure you are aware of the possibility of this occurring, (2) to advise you that we have developed contingency plans including policies and procedures in the event of game cancellations and, (3) to advise you that we will communicate these contingency plans to you immediately upon being advised by the League that a work stoppage has formally commenced.

"It remains our hope, as well as that of the League and all those involved, that agreement on the terms of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement will be reached in short order..."

Our's too. No one wants to go through a lockout again.

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