NHL, players at odds as talks stall

NEW YORK -- Labor talks between the NHL and NHL Players' Association have stalled, making a lockout increasingly likely with the current collective bargaining agreement set to expire Sept. 15.

After three days of discussions this week, the two sides decided to recess Friday after reaching a standoff on the core economic issues. No further talks are scheduled at this time.

The two sides have failed to forge common ground on several fundamental financial issues and could not even agree on who elected to cease negotiations.

NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr said the owners elected to recess, while NHL commissioner Gary Bettman disputed that claim.

"That's an unfair and inaccurate characterization," Bettman said.

The impasse resulted after discussions Friday, when the NHLPA responded to the league's counterproposal submitted earlier this week. While the league's latest offer featured concessions -- however, the two sides disagree on the significance -- it still proposes a decreased share of revenue for the players. The players do not want to entertain any offer that requires them to make any "absolute further reduction in their aggregate salaries," whether it be through rollbacks or via escrow.

The league's latest proposal asked the players to reduce their share from 57 percent to 46 percent. The association countered Friday (with what Bettman described as a "response," not a proposal) with a three-year system that limited salary growth and multiple options for a fourth option year that would allow the players to recoup some of that share.

The league was not amenable to any of the options the union proposed.

"The response that was made to us was that if the players are not prepared to make an automatic reset on their aggregate salary levels -- that is to say, as we understand it, a meaningful, absolute reduction in dollar terms for next year as compared to last year -- that they see no point in discussing or responding to the proposals we put forward at the meeting today," Fehr said.

Meanwhile, Bettman accused the union of "stonewalling" and said he was disappointed by Friday's events. He also questioned whether the NHLPA was concerned with the narrowing window of time with which the sides can work.

"There seems to be no rush by the union to make a deal," Bettman said.

The league already has stated its intent to lock the players out if a new deal is not reached by Sept. 15.

"In the last 24 hours, at least four agents have said that the players don't view Sept.15 to be the real deadline. The real deadline is Oct. 11," Bettman said. "Not sure why they're saying that. Once we get past Sept. 14, I think the dynamic changes. The damage to the business changes the dynamic of the negotiation and so from our standpoint we're hoping they can view it as Sept. 15."

Both Bettman and Fehr said they are amenable to resuming discussions should the other have new ideas to present -- Fehr said he'd like to think neither side would "stand on ceremony" -- but neither camp seems willing to budge at this point.

"We will not be discussing these issues again until there's an indication from the NHL that they are prepared to do so," Fehr said.

"And hopefully that will come soon."

With just more than two weeks left until the deadline, it looks all but certain there will be a work stoppage. A lockout forced the NHL to forfeit the entire 2004-05 season.

"What I thought was starting as a promising week after we made our substantial counterproposal on Tuesday," Bettman said, "ended, I guess, in disappointment."