NHL, union will return to table for talks today
Rick Sadowski, Rocky Mountain News
The immediate future of the NHL could be decided today in Toronto when officials from the league and the NHL Players' Association meet for the first time in three months in an attempt to salvage the 2004-05 season.
The NHL-imposed lockout, now 86 days old, began Sept. 15, when the collective bargaining agreement between the parties expired.
The regular season was scheduled to start Oct. 13, but games are being canceled by teams on a 45-day rolling basis, and time is running out.
The only other NHL lockout took place before the 1994-95 season. An agreement was reached Jan. 11, 1995, and a 48-game schedule began nine days later.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has yet to announce a deadline for this season, but he is demanding "cost certainty" in a new agreement, with a fixed link between player salaries and league revenues.
The NHLPA views that as a hard salary cap and insists it won't accept such a system.
The Hockey News recently polled 120 players, asking if they would consider accepting a hard cap if it meant saving the season. Only 7 percent said yes.
Bettman said 75 percent of league revenues went to player salaries last season, when the average salary was about $1.8 million.
The league is willing to give the players in excess of 50 percent of revenues and guarantee an average salary of $1.3 million.
Union chief Bob Goodenow is expected to submit a proposal today that includes a soft cap and stiffer luxury tax than was offered Sept. 9, the previous time the sides met.
But Bettman has said he has no interest in a luxury tax system and has been reiterating this position while meeting with officials, sponsors and season-ticket holders from several Canadian teams.
"If (the union offer) is a real genuine attempt to move the process forward, then I'll be delighted," Bettman told LeafsTV, which is owned by the Toronto Maple Leafs. "If this is just an attempt at PR, then I'm not sure we will have advanced things."
The proposal is expected to include a 10 percent reduction in current player contracts; a luxury tax of 75 cents per dollar on payrolls that exceed $40 million, with the money going to teams in need; concessions in salary arbitration; and lowering the maximum entry-level salary from $1.3 million to $850,000.
"Everyone in our union can look at each other and say we've done what we could to get a deal done," said Colorado Avalanche defenseman Rob Blake, who has left for Europe with the WorldStars, a group of NHL players that will play 10 games in seven countries, with profits earmarked for charity.
Phoenix Coyotes player representative Shane Doan, in an interview with the The (Vancouver) Province, claimed Bettman's insistence on a hard salary cap shows he is more interested in keeping his job than saving the sport.
"It boggles my mind how Gary has kept his job," Doan told the paper. "I don't know what happened to him in the last lockout. Maybe he feels embarrassed and is trying to prove himself in this one."
Bettman said he isn't troubled by such remarks.
"In the course of collective bargaining, it's not uncommon for a union that's not getting what it wants to attack, or have its members attack, the negotiators on the other side," Bettman said.
"And those are sounding like words of desperation on behalf of the union. But I don't make anything of it."