NEW YORK – As quickly as NHL labor negotiations got going again, they came to a screeching halt. Now there is no telling when the league and the players will return to the bargaining table.
After a one-day break following a series of formal discussions this week, the sides got back to business Sunday. Less than 90 minutes after talks solely about player-contract issues started, they were over.
The players contend the NHL has dug in on its position and is not willing to negotiate.
“The owners made it clear there is no give with respect to their proposals unless the players are willing to take them – this is my phrase, not theirs – down to the comma, then there is nothing to do, that we’re past the point of give and take,” players’ association executive director Donald Fehr said.
No new plans to talk were made, but today wasn’t ruled out. The sides will be in touch, and if they do decide to meet then, those talks will take place in Toronto where leaders from the NHL and the players’ association will be to attend Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.
“The two sides will be talking,” Fehr said. “I don’t know when we will get back together again. I suspect it won’t be too long, but I don’t have any idea. We’ve indicated to them that when they resume, we’d like it to be in Toronto soon. We’re meeting down here in large part because of the convenience, especially after the hurricane, for the families and staff of the NHL. Now we’d like to get some of our people back to their families, too.”
Getting together hasn’t been a problem recently once tensions thawed a bit after both sides rejected proposals on Oct. 18.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly met with union special counsel Steve Fehr last weekend, and that led to four straight days of talks this week in New York that ended on a sour note Friday night.
Donald Fehr and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman also took part in Sunday’s brief discussions.
Daly, Steve Fehr and Los Angeles Kings forward Kevin Westgarth got together for an informal lunch meeting on Saturday in New York, and the sides made plans Sunday morning to meet again at the NHL’s Manhattan office.
They just couldn’t get any traction on the hotly contested issues involving player contract terms.
The NHL wants to limit contracts to five years, make rules to prohibit back-diving contracts the league feels circumvents the salary cap, keep players ineligible for unrestricted free agency until they are 28 or have eight years of professional service time, cut entry-level deals to two years, and make salary arbitration after five years.
Daly said Sunday that owners have conveyed the message to him that these issues are of vital importance in a new deal. While there could be room to negotiate within the framework, the bottom line on these issues remains the same.
“It’s fair to say, while there was a candid discussion on those issues, and certainly each side explained their positions to the other, I don’t think there was any progress on those issues,” Daly said. “I would’ve hoped that during the course of the past week they would’ve shown some movement on those issues toward us, knowing what our fundamental concerns are. The message we basically got this week was, ‘We know what your contracting proposals are, we’re not prepared to agree to them.’
“They are not issues that can be traded off. They are all important issues to us. That doesn’t mean you can’t talk about them and shake them. There is flexibility around the issues we need to achieve but they are not issues that we can walk away from.”
Despite reports that talks on Friday got heated before negotiations ended, Daly said Sunday he doesn’t feel animosity has crept into the bargaining room. However, if the sides can’t find common ground, there won’t be a deal anytime soon to save the already delayed and shortened season.
A few hours into Friday’s session, negotiations broke down over the core economic differences that separate the sides and are threatening the season completely. The lockout already has caused the NHL to call off 327 regular-season games, including the New Year’s Day Winter Classic. A lockout wiped out the entire 2004-05 season.
“I always like to look at the glass as half-full, not half-empty. I like to be optimistic,” Daly said. “I don’t know exactly where they are on economics. I hope we’re getting closer in that regard. With respect to these issues, they are important issues.
“If we can find some way to address our concerns in these (player contract) issues, we can move this process forward. Right now, given their opposition to addressing some of these issues, I don’t know where we go.”