TORONTO - Another NHL lockout is beginning to feel like an inevitability.
Unable to move beyond the philosophical stage of talks, the owners and players have watched another week slip by without progress. They sat down together for a quick session Thursday morning before reporting the same significant gap that has existed all along.
The main issue that divides them is far from complex.
"We believe we're paying out more than we should be," said commissioner Gary Bettman. "It's as simple as that."
Of course, the NHL Players' Association doesn't quite see it that way.
Executive director Donald Fehr has acknowledged there's room for some flexibility in that area—last week's proposal included three years with a slightly lower share in revenues for the players—but he hasn't come to the table in a conciliatory mood after taking over a union that capitulated during the last round of negotiations.
"Everybody understands that employers would always like to pay less," said Fehr. "That's not a surprise to anybody—it's disappointing sometimes—but it's not a surprise."
He went on to add that the services his constituents provide are irreplaceable.
"From the players' standpoint, they want a fair agreement, they want one that is equitable, they want one that recognizes their contribution," said Fehr.
With both sides so entrenched, real negotiations have yet to begin even though the Sept. 15 deadline for a lockout is fast approaching.
The parties attempted to make some progress Wednesday by clearing the meeting room of everyone but the key figures: Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly along with Fehr and his brother Steve Fehr, the union's No. 2 man. They soon discovered there was little common ground.
Those same four men will reopen talks next Tuesday in New York during what promises to be a key negotiation session. The sides have tentatively blocked off the rest of the week for meetings as well, but they must first determine if there's anything worth talking about.
That's far from guaranteed.
A league that lost the entire 2004-05 season to a lockout is in real danger of having the start of another one disrupted for the same reason. The current CBA has seen the NHL grow from a $2.1-billion industry to one that pulls in $3.3-billion annually—a fact that isn't lost on either side.
"We recovered well last time because we have the world's greatest fans," said Bettman.
The essential difference between the offers put forward so far is perhaps best articulated in terms of their impact on the salary cap. Under the NHL's initial proposal, it would fall to $50.8 million for next season. The NHLPA's would see it set near $69 million.
The league is also believed to have verbally raised the possibility of seeing the players' share in revenue drop incrementally rather than all at once. Theoretically, it could be done at a rate that is matched by an expected increase in revenues—essentially keeping salaries constant over the duration of the agreement while owners take in more profit.
So far, the union hasn't shown much interest in negotiating off of that kind of model.
While it's natural to assume the parties might be more willing to make concessions as Sept. 15 nears, Fehr pointed out that they already know what's at stake.
"If there's going to be a lockout—and that's something that the owners will choose or not choose—then you would have missed games, you would have lost revenue, you would have lost paycheques," he said. "But that doesn't mean that the parties don't understand going into it that that would be the case."
With the possibility of a lockout becoming more real, the posturing is starting to begin. Bettman lamented Thursday that the union wasn't ready to open talks a year ago—the commissioner did say throughout the season there was more than enough time to make a deal—while Fehr continues to point out that Sept. 15 is only a deadline because the NHL has made it one.
The bottom line is that they need to make an agreement and there isn't one in sight.
Seven years ago, the sides battled one another over the philosophical view of whether the sport needed a salary cap. With that out of the way, this fight is all about money, although Bettman declined to go into detail when asked why the owners were seeking such significant givebacks.
"I'm not going to get into a public debate on that," he said. "Obviously, if we didn't think that there were issues that needed to be addressed we wouldn't be in this type of negotiation."