TORONTO -- The wide gap that existed in labor talks between the NHL and NHL Players' Association was hardly bridged on Wednesday, a day after the union presented its counterproposal and with the threat of a lockout now only a month away.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the two sides are "still apart, far apart," and "not on the same page," in making his first public comments since having a chance to read through the NHLPA's offer. Adding that he was "a little disappointed" that the union has yet to present its full proposal, Bettman said the league isn't even at the point of making a counteroffer.
"I think there are still a number of issues where we're looking at the world differently," Bettman said, after the two sides met for about an hour at the NHLPA headquarters in Toronto. "So there's still a wide gap between us, and not much time to go."
NHLPA executive director Don Fehr described the gap between the two sides as "a pretty substantial monetary gulf." But he placed the blame on the NHL for creating the gap in the first place with the cutbacks in salary and limitations placed on free agency the league made in its initial offer last month.
The current collective bargaining agreement expires on Sept. 15, and the NHL has already warned that it will lock out its players if a new deal is not reached by then. The NHL regular season is set to open Oct. 11.
Bettman's response to the NHLPA's proposal and the large gap that remains between the two sides is regarded as a significant setback. That considerably raises fears that the NHL could be headed for its fourth labor dispute in 20 years. That's a timeframe that includes the 2004-05 season which was wiped out entirely by a lockout. It also dates to April 1, 1992, when a 10-day players' strike led to 30 games being postponed and rescheduled.
Bettman was pleased that the union, in its proposal, stuck to the framework of a cap system and acknowledged the league has economic issues that need to be addressed. The problem was the union didn't entirely satisfy those concerns from the owners' perspective.
"What the issues are and how they get solved and how deep the issues go is something we're not yet on the same page," Bettman said.
Fehr disagreed by saying the union made significant concessions and addressed the league's concerns.
The trouble was, he said, the union's proposal wasn't what the NHL asked for.
"It's not a circumstance in which the players are just going to say, 'OK, take everything from us,'" Fehr said. "That's basically what it was: 'You had a 24 percent reduction last time, so let's have another one.' That was their proposal. That's what created the gulf."
Under the league's proposal, Fehr said, players' salaries would be scaled back to the level they were before the previous lockout.
Fehr also disagreed with Bettman's suggestion that the union has not presented its full proposal. He said the NHL has "almost everything" except for certain player contract issues that are tied to economics. He said the union is considering addressing those issues next week.
Though talks on a sub-committee level are scheduled to continue, Bettman and Fehr won't return to the table until next week. Fehr is leaving negotiations to meet with players in both Chicago and Kelowna, British Columbia, to update them on talks.
Fehr did say he will stay in touch with Bettman by phone.
The union's counterproposal stood in stark contrast to what the NHL made in its initial proposal a month earlier.
The NHLPA proposed a deal in which players would give up as much $465 million in revenue if the league's overall revenue continues to grow at an average rate over the first three years of the deal. Fehr indicated that number could balloon to $800 million if the league grows at the same rate it has over the past two seasons.
Players would then have the option in the fourth year to revert to the current system, in which they receive between 54 and 57 percent of league revenues.
The union also proposed that the NHL commit money to a revenue-sharing system to help struggling teams.
Fehr described the players' offer as one that could stabilize the industry.
The NHL's initial proposal placed much of the burden on its players. The league is seeking another 24 percent cut in player revenue and the introduction severe limits to free agency. That includes players waiting 10 years to be eligible to become unrestricted free agents, as opposed to seven in the current deal, and eliminating players' rights to salary arbitration.
Bettman noted that players in other major sports, such as the NFL and the NBA, agreed to reduce their revenue share in new deals that have been struck over the past year.
Fehr said it's unfair to make those comparisons. And he questioned why Bettman didn't mention Major League Baseball, which has revenue sharing among teams, doesn't have a cap system and has enjoyed labor peace.