TORONTO - With one month to go before the NHL's collective bargaining agreement expires, the league and players seem no closer to a deal than when talks began in June.
In fact, it appears as though the divide may have grown even wider.
After waiting several weeks to receive a proposal from the NHL Players' Association, it took commissioner Gary Bettman less than 24 hours to conclude that the union's initial offering held little appeal for the owners.
"There's still a wide gap between us with not much time to go," Bettman said Wednesday.
"I do think it's fair to say that the sides are still apart—far apart—and have different views of the world and the issues," he added.
The comments weren't encouraging for those hoping to see the league avoid its second lockout in as many negotiations, and the third on Bettman's watch. The current CBA expires Sept. 15 and Bettman has already made it clear that the league will enact a work stoppage if a new deal isn't in place by then.
On Tuesday, the union put forth a proposal that included a smaller percentage of revenues for players over the next three seasons in exchange for an expanded revenue sharing program to help struggling teams. The NHLPA estimated that players would be giving up US$465 million in salaries if the league continued on its pace of seven per cent growth each season.
However, that math didn't add up for the league.
"I think it's fair to say that we value the proposal and what it means in terms of its economics differently than the players' association does," said Bettman. "I think there still are a number of issues where we're looking at the world differently. I'm not sure that there has yet been a recognition of the economics in our world—and I mean the greater world and the sports industry, taking into account what recently happened with the NFL and the NBA."
Both of those leagues went through lockouts before ultimately seeing the players' share in revenue reduced. The NHL's initial proposal called for a significant reduction from 57 per cent to 43 per cent, when factoring in changes to the way revenue is calculated.
Under the NHLPA's offer, the difference would be much less significant.
Donald Fehr, the union's executive director, bristled at the parallels Bettman drew to other pro leagues—"every sport has its own economics," he said—and indicated that the gap in talks was actually created by the NHL's initial proposal in July.
"There's a pretty substantial monetary gulf which is there and when you start with the proposal the owners made how could it be otherwise?" said Fehr. "I mean consider what the proposal was: It is 'Let's move salaries back to where they were before the (2004-05) lockout started, back to the last time.' That's basically what it was.
"'We had a 24 per cent reduction last time, let's have another one.' That was the proposal. That's what creates the gulf."
The sides broke off from talks with two completely different offers on the table and no meaningful negotiation sessions planned for a week. A sub-committee meeting is scheduled for Thursday, but Bettman and Fehr won't sit down together again until Aug. 22.
It's impossible to ignore the looming threat of a lockout.
Fehr felt the owners should have been more receptive to a proposal that kept the hard salary cap in place and called for a drag on salaries. He also wondered aloud whether the NHL might be using the possibility of a work stoppage as a negotiation tactic rather than a last resort.
"It looks pretty much like there's a playbook out there that people are following," said Fehr. "Hopefully, that's not the case, but so far there aren't very many differences. Players understand that and if those eventualities arise the players will know what to do."
For his part, there was little Bettman could offer when asked about what he might say to fans concerned about the possibility of a disruption to the season.
"I don't have an appetite either to not have hockey, so we're all in agreement on that," said Bettman. "I know what the game means and I know how important it is for our franchises and our game to be healthy from an economic standpoint and we're working very, very hard.
"It takes two sides to make a deal, it takes two sides to negotiate and it takes two sides if it all goes bad. We're working very hard hopefully to keep it from going bad."