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NHL, NHLPA have much to discuss to avoid work stoppage

NEWARK – According to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, the league’s revenues have risen every year since the lockout, culminating with a $3.3 billion haul this season. The players, who were supposed to have taken it on the chin in the last collective bargaining agreement, have never had it better.

So why, then, is there this prevailing sense of doom that a lockout is inevitable? Perhaps it’s not one that will wipe out an entire season, but there seems to be an enormous amount of chatter in the hockey industry that the league will lock the players out on Sept. 15 and have them return to work at the end of November.

Neither side has had a meaningful bargaining session yet so it’s impossible to say with any certainty what will happen. What we do know is there is still an enormous gap between the have and have-not teams regardless of how high revenues have climbed. There are several issues to be worked out concerning contract terms and revenue sharing, which are issues that will be as important for the teams to resolve among themselves as it is with the players.

In other words, there is a lot of work to do.

“I don’t understand both the speculation and the degree of negativity that it connotes, considering we have yet to have a substantive discussion on what we may each be looking for in collective bargaining,” Bettman said. “So if somebody is suggesting it, it’s either because there is something in the water, people still have the NBA or NFL on the brain or they’re looking for news on a slow day.”

NHL Players’ Association executive director Donald Fehr also tread lightly on the issue of negotiations. He did say that he senses, “you don’t have the kind of atmosphere going in which necessarily presaged a conflict, you don’t seem to have that.” But he also went on to caution that whether or not you have that environment 108 days before the expiration of an agreement doesn’t accurately predict the outcome.

Leading up to the lockout in 2004, the players’ association tabled a proposal which called for a 24 percent rollback across the board on salaries and while it didn’t save the season, it became a major foundation of the new agreement. When asked whether the players might make a similar proposal, Fehr joked, “What, you don’t like me in this job?”

Like the last time, it will take a lot more than just a one-time offer of a pay cut to appease the owners. According to all indications, the league is looking to have the players’ share of revenues reduced to somewhere in the area of 50 percent. All indications are this will be another round of claw-back negotiating on the part of the NHL, which is fully aware that public sentiment is rarely in the favor of millionaire hockey players. The league is also cognizant of the fact the players sacrificed a year of their careers the last time around. Will the ones who did so be willing to do the same again and lose millions in career earnings they will never, ever get back?

“(The players) recognize they made enormous concessions in the last round of bargaining,” Fehr said. “And that is part of the backdrop that leads us into this round of negotiations. The players know what happened last time.”

Bettman did touch on some other league business in his state-of-the-union address, the most prominent of which is that league data shows concussions are down slightly this season for the first time in three years despite more conscientious reporting of the injury. He is currently formulating his opinion on the appeal of the 25-game suspension to Raffi Torres of the Phoenix Coyotes and, speaking of the Coyotes, would not make a 100 percent guarantee they will be playing in Glendale next season, although he said all signs point to that being the case.

Bettman said prospective owner Greg Jamison continues to work out a deal with the City of Glendale on a management fee for the Jobing.com Arena and put his own financing together for the deal. The city is expected to vote next week on the management agreement that would pay Jamison $20 million a year until 2017 and an average of $14.5 million per year on a 20-year lease.

“I can’t say anything with 100 percent certainty,” Bettman said. “The likelihood, based on everything we know today, that the process should conclude successfully, but it’s not something I’m prepared to guarantee.”

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