OTTAWA - NHL Players' Association executive director Donald Fehr and league commissioner Gary Bettman plan to meet next week, but whether this will be the beginning of informal discussions on a new collective agreement remains to be seen.
The two do meet periodically, but neither Fehr nor Bettman would predict when negotiations on a new collective agreement would become serious.
The smart money says that even though there are 8 ½ months before the current CBA expires on Sept. 15, the two sides are not expected to get into serious talks for weeks, maybe months.
Fehr said that his side needs more financial information from the league before serious negotiations can take place. But if you're looking for a sign on how heated this battle will become in the next few months, the quieter the better.
"My hope is that we can reason together and that collective bargaining will be painless and quiet and quick," Bettman said in a press conference after an NHL board of governors meeting in a downtown Ottawa hotel on Saturday. "That would serve everyone's best interest."
If the NHL can learn from the CBA talks last year in the NBA, NFL and MLB, the baseball discussions were the most pain free, quick and quiet because those talks resulted in a new collective agreement two weeks before the old CBA was set to expire. The NFL and NBA both entered a lockout, although only the NBA lost part of its season.
"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.
The biggest issue for the talks between the league and the players will be what percentage of player salaries will be tied to revenues and the NHLPA.
There also has been speculation that Fehr may want the owners to abandon the hard-salary cap system the owners got in the last round of talks seven years ago and return to a free-market system with a better revenue sharing system among the strong and soft market clubs in the NHL.
Fehr did point out he believes baseball has the most compatible relations between the owners and players, and it is the only North American major sport without a salary cap.
"I'm simply going to point out there were three negotiations," Fehr 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 labour-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 came from basketball so obviously that's what he's going to do."
It is difficult, however, to compare the NHL to the NBA, MLB or NFL because the economics are different in each league.
"The ownership is different, the nature of the sport is different, the economics of the four sports are different," Fehr 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."
Coyotes' status report
Bettman reiterated that there is a third party interested in buying the Phoenix Coyotes and keeping the troubled NHL franchise in Glendale.
The league remains hopeful that a sale can be worked out and the Coyotes remain in the desert.
The NHL commissioner didn't want to discuss a plan B, but deputy commissioner Bill Daly acknowledged after Bettman's session with reporters that Quebec City remains a possibility if the team needs to be relocated. Daly, however, also added there other options, like Seattle.
"Quebec is a possibility to get Phoenix next year, but it is not alone," Daly said.
The number of concussions has gone up 10 per cent. But Bettman did not see alarmed at this development. Instead, he reasoned the increase in head injuries are the result of improvements in the diagnosis of concussions and that team trainers and doctors have taken a more conservative approach than in the past.
Bettman added the culture among players has changed, too. Players feel more comfortable in acknowledging concussion-like symptoms when a head injury occurs.
The NHLPA also has been active on this front. It had medical specialists speak about concussions to players in each visit to the 30 clubs last fall.
Bettman revealed that fighting in the league has declined 25 per cent. But he also said there is no internal pressure from league owners or general managers to get rid of fighting.
Updates on Blues, Devils
The league is hopeful that the St. Louis Blues' sale to current minority owner Tom Stillman will be finalized sometime in March. The deal with the New Jersey Devils is another matter.
Principal owners owners Ray Chambers and Jeff Vanderbeek are "not seeing eye-to-eye" these days and that the NHL was working on rectifying the matter by getting one of the co-owners to take control of the troubled team.
Daly confirmed reports that the Devils have been receiving advances on their share of NHL revenues to meet payroll and other financial demands.
All stars, awards
The NHL announced the Columbus Blue Jackets will host the all-star game next year on Jan. 26-27. The league also announced it will continue to hold the season-ending awards night in Las Vegas for another three years.
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