NEW YORK – NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman maintains the league will lock out players Sunday if a new labor deal isn’t reached, and star player Sidney Crosby isn’t optimistic the season will start on time.
With both sides far apart and little time before the current deal expires at midnight Saturday, the league’s board of governors met in New York on Thursday as a group of more than 280 players gathered at a hotel a short distance away.
Following lockouts last year by basketball and football owners, Bettman says hockey management is determined to come away with economic gains, even if it forces the NHL’s fourth work stoppage since 1992.
“Two other leagues — the NBA and the NFL — their players have recognized that in these economic times there is a need to retrench,” Bettman said during a news conference that followed the unanimous endorsement of a lockout during a two-hour owners’ meeting.
The last labor stoppage caused the cancellation of the entire 2004-05 season, a lockout that ended only when players accepted a salary cap.
“Right now it’s not looking great,” said Crosby, a Pittsburgh Penguins star who was just 16 when the last lockout began, “but things can change pretty quickly.”
Training camps are scheduled to open Sept. 21 and the season is slated to start Oct. 11.
Crosby and others will consider playing overseas if part or all of the NHL season is canceled.
Management’s latest offer, made Wednesday in response to a players’ proposal, will be in effect until Saturday. Once the lockout begins, Bettman says the economic damage would cause owners to offer players a less beneficial deal. No talks were held Thursday and none were scheduled.
Players currently receive 57 percent of hockey-related revenue, and the owners want to bring that number down as far as perhaps 47 percent. The union offered a deal based on actual dollars, seeking a guarantee of the $1.8 billion players received last season.
“The fact is, we believe that 57 percent of HRR is too much,” Bettman said. “Even a brief lockout will cost more in terms of lost salary and wages than what we’re proposing to do to make a deal that we think we need to make.”
After the current contract was agreed to in July 2005, then- union head Bob Goodenow resigned two weeks later. He was replaced in 2010 by Fehr, who led baseball players through three work stoppages in the 1980s and ’90s.
Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller said Fehr is doing a far better job communicating with members than leadership did in the last lockout. Miller believes that he and his fellow players are more in the loop about what is going on than the 30 league owners, who are prohibited by NHL bylaws from publicly commenting about the negotiation process.
“I doubt that all the owners are as well informed as all the players,” Miller said. “I don’t know if that’s going to get me in trouble or not. I just feel like it’s kind of whatever they are told by Gary. I guess it’s a little bit like politics. Some people can’t watch Fox News because they think it’s all spun to the right, and some people can’t watch MSNBC because it’s spun to the left.
“You have this whole thing where I’m sure they feel like a lot of what we’re saying is spin.”
Players struck in April 1992, causing 30 games to be postponed.
This would be the third lockout under Bettman. The 1994-95 lockout ended after 103 days and the cancellation of 468 games. The most recent lockout was finally settled in July 2005 — 301 days into the work stoppage and a month after the league would usually have awarded the Stanley Cup.
“You get a real sense of the unity and the commitment and the participation and the understanding and the knowledge that these players have,” Fehr said. “It’s very gratifying.
“The players very much want to reach an agreement, provided that it is one which is fair and which is equitable and treats them appropriately.”
Bettman said the union has controlled the scheduling of the meetings and suggested players had reasons for wanting to delay negotiations.
The league tried to start talks last summer, at last winter’s All-Star game, during the playoffs last spring and again at the Stanley Cup finals.
“Looking back in hindsight, it looks like there was no urgency on the part of the players’ association to engage or get anything done,” Bettman said.
Annual industry revenue has grown from $2.1 billion to $3.3 billion 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 formula.
The owners’ latest offer raised the percentage of hockey-related revenue 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 .
In the last negotiations, the players’ association accepted a salary-cap system for the first time and absorbed a 24 percent rollback on all existing contracts.
Having made those concessions, the union doesn’t think it should have to make more this time after a period of record financial growth.
Bettman cited the on-ice success for teams, noting that there have been seven different champions over the course of this contract, and all clubs but the Toronto Maple Leafs qualified for the playoffs at least once.
“We’ve had seven years of incredible competitive balance,” Bettman said. “The game on the ice has never been better. That is a function of this system. The system as originally negotiated needs some adjustments.
“It turned out to be too rich a deal for the first seven years. We lived with it but I’m not going to apologize for saying we need to adjust it.”