OTTAWA - The NHL and NHL Players' Association appear to be tip-toeing into negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement.
Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr are scheduled to meet one another next week, but issues pertaining to the CBA are not expected to be on the agenda. Even though both sides targeted the all-star break as a starting point for negotiations, neither seems to be in a hurry to get down to business now that its arrived.
"My guess is, at least informally, we'll have some discussions in the not-too-distant future," Bettman said Saturday after the NHL's board of governors meeting. "I'm not prepared to say when the formal negotiations will begin. That's a call we've pretty left to the Players' Association. We're ready, and have been ready. But the union has had some work to do.
"Don Fehr obviously being somewhat new to the job is going through a bit of a learning curve and wants to make sure he understands what his constituents want. And so, we're patient. I'm not concerned about the time frame."
The current agreement expires Sept. 15, making the NHL the fourth major North American sports league to negotiate a new deal in a little over a year.
Bettman and Fehr have held meetings at various points during the season, but the sessions tend to cover a range of topics. Fehr, the NHLPA's executive director, hinted Saturday that he might be in favour of putting off serious negotiations until the summer.
"Obviously my preference will be when we get to the real significant sessions to do it at a point in time which is rather more likely to have players present easily than less," said Fehr. "But we'll know sometime in the next few weeks how that's going to play out."
Truth be told, the NHL seems to have more pressing issues to deal with at the moment. Bettman provided reporters with updates on a number of struggling franchises after holding a short meeting with league governors during the all-star weekend.
Not only did he acknowledge a long-standing feud between New Jersey Devils owners Jeff Vanderbeek and Ray Chambers, but deputy commissioner Bill Daly also confirmed the team has been advanced money to help with operating costs.
"We're not a bank, we don't loan them money," said Daly. "We're advancing revenue streams that they're otherwise entitled to."
The league also continues to pay the bills in Phoenix, where Bettman says three suitors have shown interest in the Coyotes. The "for sale" sign has been hanging on the franchise in Glendale, Ariz., for more than two years and the NHL seems to be growing less patient with the situation.
"We've been at this process for two-plus years now," said Daly. "At some point, if you're not successful, you have to turn the page and move on. I think there's a growing sense that we're getting there."
Neither the NHL or NHLPA has gone on record with its vision for the new economic system. The league lost the entire 2004-05 season to a lockout that saw the introduction of a salary cap.
Fehr refused to disclose whether he'll table its elimination during this round of negotiations.
He also shot down the notion that the players are bound to see their revenue share scaled back from its current level of 57 per cent. The recent deals completed by the NBA and NFL saw the players' take reduced—football came in at between 47 and 48.5 per cent while basketball will fall between 49 and 52 per cent.
"There were three negotiations—the third one was baseball," said Fehr. "There are no (salary) caps. There is much more sophisticated and detailed revenue sharing. They went through the third negotiation in a row without a stoppage, the second one without a hint or a suggestion of it.
"Baseball is far and away on a labour relations standpoint the most stable of the four. There's no question about it at this stage."
Overall, the two sides seem to be feeling one another out. Even they aren't willing to predict where things are headed in the coming months.
"I have no idea whether we see the world the same way or whether we see it a little bit apart or whether we see it a long way apart," said Daly. "I really won't be in a position to really handicap that until we sit down."
Once that finally happens, the players will come to the table with an intimate understanding of what's at stake.
Fehr wasn't around for the last set of negotiations and he didn't sugarcoat what happened to the union the last time it sat across the table with the league.
"I don't think it's a matter of conjecture whether the players made significant concessions in the last agreement," he said. "It was an enormous amount of money in terms of the wealth transfer over the period of the agreement. The players understand what that was.
"They understand what happened."