The NHL seemed headed for another lockout Friday as neither team owners nor players showed interest in getting back to contract negotiations a day before the old labor deal was set to expire.
Brief conversations late Thursday and Friday between leaders on the two sides failed to spur more formal talks – in fact, the idea of restarting negotiations didn’t even come up. The current collective bargaining agreement that ended the season-long lockout in 2005 expires at midnight ET on Saturday, and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has said a lockout would kick in immediately if a new deal hasn’t been reached.
”It’s their decision,” defenseman Mike Weaver, the Florida Panthers’ player representative said Friday. ”When that padlock comes out, it’s pretty much Bettman’s decision on there.”
The Toronto Sun reported that owners voted Thursday to approve a lockout if a new collective bargaining agreement is not reached before Saturday’s deadline.
The lockout would mark the NHL’s fourth work stoppage since 1992.
On Thursday night, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly spoke to players’ association special counsel Steve Fehr, the brother of union executive director Donald Fehr. The discussions mostly dealt with answering questions each side have about current proposals.
Bettman has said the season won’t start without a new deal. Preseason games are scheduled to start on Sept. 23, and the regular season is to begin on Oct. 11.
”We have been clear that the collective bargaining agreement, upon its expiration, needs to have a successful agreement for us to move forward,” Bettman said Thursday. ”The league is not in a position, not willing to move forward with another season under the status quo.”
On Friday, the Quebec labor relations board turned down a request from the players’ association for a temporary injunction against a potential lockout in Quebec.
But the board also ruled Friday that more hearings are needed to make a final decision on a request by 16 members of the Montreal Canadiens and the players’ association to declare a lockout illegal in the province.
No date was set for further hearings.
With the ruling, Canadiens players will be locked out with their colleagues if a work stoppage goes ahead on schedule.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly was happy with the decision.
”We are pleased but not surprised with the Quebec labor board’s ruling tonight that any lockout of players will be effective on a league-wide basis, including in Quebec, and we are extremely appreciative of the expeditious and decisive manner in which the matter was handled,” he said in a statement. ”We are hopeful that this ruling will cause the players’ association to cease pursuing these needless distractions and instead focus all of its efforts and energies on making progress at the bargaining table.”
The union also saw the decision as a positive development.
”We are pleased with the ruling that the commission released tonight.” NHL players’ association general counsel Don Zavelo said in a statement. ”While the commission denied the players’ request for emergency relief, it also rejected the NHL’s request to dismiss the case. The ruling acknowledges that the players have raised issues about the legality of the NHL’s planned lockout that require a full hearing on the merits.”
”We remain confident that the lockout is prohibited by the Quebec labor code and look forward to presenting our case to the commission in the near future. Should the NHL carry out its threat to lock out the players in Quebec, it will do so at its own risk.”
A similar request was filed late Thursday with the Alberta labor relations board. NHLPA director of operations Alexandra Dagg said the aim was to prevent players from the Canadiens, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames from being locked out.
The NHLPA argued that because it isn’t certified as a union with the province, its members can’t locked out under Quebec labor law. In Alberta, the union will argue that proper procedure wasn’t followed, including using a mediator.
On Thursday, players turned out in force in midtown Manhattan, while the league’s board of governors met nearby in another hotel.
The last labor stoppage caused the cancellation of the entire 2004-05 season, a lockout that ended only when players accepted a salary cap and a 24 percent rollback of salaries.
”If we’re not going to start camp on time, it’s disappointing, for sure,” Panthers forward Stephen Weiss said Friday. ”We’re all training all summer to be ready to play, and if we don’t get that opportunity, it’s disappointing. But I’m optimistic that we’ll get a deal done sooner than later.
”There’s smart enough people involved in this thing that I don’t think it’ll take too long. We just have to make sure whatever deal they do agree on, it makes sense for both sides and it will be lasting.”
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 another work stoppage.
”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 after a two-hour owners’ meeting Thursday.
Damage from another lockout will occur almost immediately, and there is no telling how jilted fans and sponsors will react to another shutdown, especially if it lasts stretches through the fall and into the winter.
Management’s latest offer has a short shelf life. Once the lockout begins, Bettman says the economic damage would cause owners to offer players a less beneficial deal.
Players currently receive 57 percent of hockey-related revenue, and the owners want to bring that number down as far as perhaps 47 percent – which is an increase from their original offer of 43 percent.
”The fact is, we believe that 57 percent of HRR is too much,” Bettman said.
The union offered a deal based on actual dollars, seeking a guarantee of the $1.8 billion players received last season. Annual industry revenue has grown from $2.1 billion to $3.3 billion under the expiring deal.
Players are concerned management hasn’t addressed the league’s financial problems by re-examining the teams’ revenue-sharing formula. Having made several big concessions to reach a deal in 2005, the union doesn’t think it should have to make more this time after record financial growth.
The current contract was agreed to in 2005, and Bob Goodenow resigned as union head two weeks later. After stints by Ted Saskin and Paul Kelly, the union in 2010 turned to 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. The 30 league owners are prohibited by NHL bylaws from publicly commenting about negotiations.
”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. … 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.
”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,” Donald Fehr said.