The NHL and the players’ association seemingly had a good day on Friday as they returned to the negotiating table.
It just wasn’t good enough to bring the sides all that much closer to the end of the lockout that threatens the start of the hockey regular season.
The league and the union got back to bargaining for the first time since players were locked out on Sept. 16, and the sides discussed secondary issues without broaching the big economic divide that really is the essence of the dispute.
”It was a good day,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said Friday night after the second negotiating session of the day. ”I wish we had spent today on what we consider to be the more meaningful issues, but it is what it is.”
The sides were together for a total of about five hours – including a private meeting between Commissioner Gary Bettman and union head Donald Fehr.
A handful of players also took part in the talks.
The groups agreed on issues related to player safety and drug testing, areas that weren’t expected to be contentious. They will get back together on Saturday morning, and plan to meet on Sunday, too, but the topics of discussion still don’t seem to include the big dollar issues.
”I don’t know if I would say significant, but we did seem to make some progress on a number of things. Hopefully we will continue,” NHL Players’ Association special counsel Steve Fehr said. ”There is no plan right now to discuss core economic issues.”
And that is where the frustration lies. The NHL is waiting for the players’ association to make a counterproposal to one the league made to the union in the previous bargaining session more than two weeks ago.
”We can’t make them talk about what they don’t want to talk about,” Daly said. ”In fairness, we do have to cover these issues if we’re going to reach an agreement. What we’re doing today is important, it’s just not the most important things we can be doing.
”We’ve made at least two consecutive moves in significant dollars in their direction, and they haven’t moved a single dollar in our direction since Aug. 4.”
Former player Mathieu Schneider, now an NHLPA special assistant to the executive director, said Friday morning that there were agreements on more rigorous drug testing, expanding it to parts of the year during which testing is not currently done.
Neither side sees the use of performance-enhancing drugs as a problem in the NHL.
”We’re in agreement that it’s not an issue in our sport,” Schneider said. ”I think it’s in the players’ best interest as well as the sport to close off any possible time during the year where players could use.”
Other topics on tap for Friday and through the weekend are various health and safety issues, time players spend at training facilities, and other non-economic topics.
”We like to say that nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to, but we’ve certainly made some headway,” Schneider said. ”A lot of it was done previous to this morning. We’re taking notes of where we stand. I would say that we have a lot of mutual ground that we have found agreement on.”
It is not impossible that monetary issues will come up for discussion in this round of talks, they just aren’t scheduled. Neither side has indicated it is prepared to make a new offer now regarding how to split up the more than $3 billion annual pot of hockey-related revenue.
”In general, when you’re dealing with collective bargaining, when you start to have agreements on smaller issues, it can lead to bigger issues,” Schneider said, ”but it’s still too early to say.”
These are the first talks since the lockout was put in place on Sept. 16 and they came a day after the league canceled the remaining preseason games. The regular season is to start Oct. 11.
If a deal isn’t reached soon, regular-season games will be in danger of being lost. The NHL canceled the entire 2004-05 season because of a lockout that eventually led to the collective bargaining agreement that expired this month.
”The calendar continues to tick along,” Daly said. ”My guess is as time goes on, regular-season games are at risk. I don’t think it can be any more urgent than where we are now. We’ve had that level of urgency for a long time. In some respects you can meet all you want, but if there is no compromise or no movement or no new proposals I am not sure at the end of the day what you’re meeting over.
”There is a very high degree of urgency certainly on our side. I can’t speak for their side, but I am sure they would tell you there is a degree of urgency there, too.”
Steve Fehr contended that the players’ association is willing to discuss any issues at any time to try to make a deal soon.
”We can discuss the core issues whenever they want to do it,” he said. ”Bargaining is not ping pong. There are no rules on who has to serve.
”I don’t want to use the adjective optimistic, but it was a productive discussion. We had a good session and hopefully it will continue and build momentum.”