Union chief Donald Fehr is sticking to his story that a deal with the NHL to end the long lockout was close before talks suddenly broke off this week.
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The NHL Players’ Association executive director repeated earlier remarks that an agreement appeared to be within reach Thursday night when the league rejected the union’s latest proposal and rescinded its own.
”My comments from a couple of days ago stand on their own. I think we were very close,” Fehr told reporters Saturday – the 84th day if the lockout – after addressing a Canadian Auto Workers council meeting.
Fehr’s comments run contrary to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who said angrily Thursday he didn’t think the owners and players were close to a deal and didn’t know why Fehr claimed otherwise.
Fehr said he hasn’t spoken directly with Bettman or deputy commissioner Bill Daly since talks crumbled, adding there has been some minor chatter between the sides, but that no future meetings have been scheduled.
”So far they have not indicated a willingness to continue discussions,” Fehr said.
Daly told The Associated Press in an email Friday night that he didn’t have any thoughts how to restart the process.
”I have no reason, nor any intention, of reaching out to the union right now,” he wrote. ”I have no new ideas. Maybe they do. We are happy to listen.”
Fehr declined Saturday to comment directly on remarks by Bettman that questioned Fehr’s motives for saying a deal was close, saying only he was disappointed with how things turned out. Fehr even urged those listening to his speech to deliver any suggestions on how to make a deal to him.
”I’m always disappointed when you’re involved in a process and people want to call a halt to it,” Fehr said. ”The one thing we know for certain is that you can’t make agreements if you’re not talking about it.”
The sides will have to renew negotiations soon if the remainder of the NHL season is to be saved. The lockout has resulted in the cancellation of 422 regular-season games through Dec. 14, along with the New Year’s Day Winter Classic and the All-Star game.
”I was in the room the whole time, every time,” said Los Angeles Kings forward Kevin Westgarth, a member of the union negotiating team who played in a charity hockey game featuring 36 NHL players Saturday night in Windsor, Ontario. ”We made a ton of progress. That was obvious.
”It’s a shame things turned out the way they did. At this point, though, nothing surprises me. They get everybody’s expectations up and then dash them. It’s unfortunate. It’s a shame we’re not playing this game at the Joe or anywhere else in the NHL.”
Edmonton Oilers captain Shawn Horcoff, who also took part in this week’s negotiations in New York, agreed with Fehr and Westgarth that the sides definitely took steps toward a deal.
”We’re closer,” Horcoff said during the second intermission of Saturday night’s game. ”It wasn’t like we’re farther apart. We made progress toward a deal on the key issues, but we’re just not there yet. Hopefully after a couple days we can get back at it.
”The worst thing would be to take time off and not meet. You got to get in there. Especially as someone being in there, some talks go good and some talks go bad. But you’re figuring things out, trying new ideas, what works and what doesn’t work and you’re moving forward.”
Bettman indicated the league wouldn’t consider a schedule of fewer than 48 games – the same length it had after the 1994-95 lockout – which leaves roughly a month to reach an agreement.
But Fehr said negotiations are further ahead than they were a week ago, despite talks collapsing, and that a tentative agreement on a pension plan to be funded by the players as well as discussions on money issues are largely done, with the exception of transition payments.
”We think we’re either done on the dollars or very close to it,” he said.
Hopes had been high Tuesday when four new owners joined the negotiation process and met well into the night with players, leading some close to the situation to believe that an agreement was at hand.
But tempers flared during another marathon session Wednesday in which the sides exchange offers and move closer together.
A comprehensive proposal was handed over to the league by Fehr on Thursday, but the league rejected the offer because the union wanted to negotiate on three issues the NHL stated had to be accepted as is. It is then that talks fell apart, and the league pulled its offer off the table.
Fehr told a room packed with CAW members that the players’ association and other labor groups share many traits when it comes to negotiating. He told the meeting that league negotiators must take into account concessions made by the players in their last collective agreement as well as NHL revenue increases in recent years.
Fehr said he wanted to be the bearer of good news in his talk to the assembled union members.
”I had hoped when this invitation came, and even earlier this week, to be in a position to tell you that we had successfully concluded an agreement and the lockout was over,” he said. ”I can’t tell you when it’s going to end. I can tell you that the only way it’s going to end is to keep at the process and hope that eventually we’re able to find a way through the thicket of issues that are there.”
The NHL is in danger of losing its second full season in seven years. The lockout that forced the cancellation of the 2004-05 season marked the first time a North American professional sports league had a full campaign wiped out by a labor dispute. The agreement that was finally reached back expired this September, leading to a lockout being imposed again on Sept. 16.