TORONTO – A new NHL labour deal might not be as far off as it seems.
Steve Fehr, special counsel to the NHL Players’ Association, believes the collective bargaining agreement can be wrapped up in a hurry once the sides make a breakthrough in negotiations.
“One thing (deputy commissioner) Bill Daly and I agree upon is that when the moment is right the deal could be done very quickly,” Fehr said Monday during a panel discussion at the PrimeTime Sports Management Conference. “One days, three days or whatever.”
Asked later if he agreed with that assertion, Daly replied: “I hope he’s right.”
Representatives from the NHL and NHLPA have met seven of the last nine days, but no future talks are planned. Fehr told the panel that three issues remain to be solved: the split of money, player contract rights and who pays for the damage caused by the lockout.
The contract issue in particular has flared up recently, with Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby sounding off on that topic to reporters on Monday. The NHL has proposed changes to entry-level deals, arbitration, free agency and contract limits.
“The question I’d ask is why would we change that?” said Crosby. “I think we all think it’s the most competitive league in the world so why would you go and change that—the way contracts go and the way teams can operate?”
Fehr and Daly discussed the player rights issue during a meeting on Sunday afternoon, and the union leader doesn’t believe it will ultimately keep them from striking a deal.
“We’re not making any real progress in those areas,” said Fehr. “It’s kind of hard to believe anyone’s going to drive the industry bus off a cliff over things like that, but I’ve seen things before that surprise me.”
On a more positive note, he indicated that the sides were “fairly close” to an agreement on revenue sharing. It’s believed the NHL is willing to bump the annual pot to $220 million from its current position of $140 million.
The NHL lockout has been ongoing since mid-September and forced the cancellation of all regular-season games through Nov. 30. It is believed a deal would need to be struck early next week for a shortened season to begin on Dec. 1.
On Monday, Fehr was joined on the labour issues panel by Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke, New York Giants assistant GM Kevin Abrams and Toronto Raptors vice-president Ed Stefanski.
Most of the talk centred on the NHL negotiations, which kept Burke uncharacteristically quiet because team officials can be fined up to $1 million for speaking about the CBA. At one point, he quipped: “This is painful.”
Fehr also spoke of his experiences with the Major League Baseball Players’ Association, where he earned the nickname “Designated Optimist” during the 2002 talks, and observed that lockouts seem to have become unavoidable in sports with a salary cap.
“It’s almost as if in the capped sports it’s become a rewriting of the Hippocratic Oath,” said Fehr. “Instead of first ‘do no harm,’ it’s first lockout and then we’ll see what happens. I guess they’ve decided they can live with how the fans feel about it and they’re not going to by shy about doing it.”
He also hinted that NHL owners might not be taking the union seriously during these negotiations.
“It does remind me certainly of some disputes long ago in baseball,” said Fehr. “In some ways, it reminds me of baseball in the 80’s and maybe the early 90’s before the baseball owners, in our view, accepted that the union was here to stay and wanted to make a deal with the union as opposed to fighting with the union.