The battery of lawyers and sprawling negotiating committees are being relegated to the sidelines.
As the NHL’s collective bargaining talks resume in New York on Tuesday, they’ll do so with only four men at the table: NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and his deputy, Bill Daly, on one side; NHL Players’ Association executive director Donald Fehr and his top assistant, Steve Fehr, on the other.
“Both sides agree that this, at this point in time, might be a productive way for us to try and get some traction,” Bettman said when negotiations broke last week.
There’s been very little evidence of traction over the last two months.
While the parties have met face-to-face every week since the end of June, they’ve made very little headway on the framework that will shape the next agreement. That prompted the first small session with just Bettman, Daly and the Fehrs in Toronto last week, and led to the scheduling of another one with the talks shifting back to New York.
The sides are in need of anything that might encourage progress with a Sept. 15 deadline looming for a lockout.
“When you get into discussions like this sometimes things can become more or less cumbersome depending on the nature of the group and what you’re talking about,” said Donald Fehr. “And, you find a way to satisfy everybody’s comfort level and go on. If you try it one way and that doesn’t really work you go try it another way.
“If that doesn’t work you try it a third way.”
The biggest issue holding up talks is finding agreement on how the league’s revenues should be split up. Players received 57 per cent under the expiring CBA and the league wants to see that number reduced considerably.
The NHL’s initial offer involved cutting the amount to 43 per cent, although it has indicated a willingness to negotiate off that number.
Based on last season’s revenues, every percentage point lost would cost the players $33-million. After capitulating in the last round of negotiations and hiring Fehr to lead them in this one, that group appears ready to fight against significant givebacks.
In fact, Fehr declared last week that “the players aren’t afraid of a lockout.”
For an agreement to be made, something will have to give. Bettman has made it clear that he believes the owners are paying out too much money.
“The players have done very well under this deal,” said Bettman. “The average salary has gone from $1.45-million (in 2005-06) to $2.45-million, and I think if given their druthers — and they’ve said publicly — they’d be happy to keep playing under this deal even while we negotiate. ...
“My sense is that they prefer to keep things the way they are, and so that slows up the process.”
The sides have looked like competing hockey teams at the conclusion of previous negotiating sessions, with the number of well-dressed attendees often unable to fit together in one elevator.
The gathering will be decidedly smaller on Tuesday as the leaders of the NHL and NHLPA try to push talks in a positive direction.
“Hopefully we’ll be productive when we get to it,” said Fehr. “We have a lot to do. I have always believed that there is enough time.
“If there is a mutual will to do that, I still believe there is enough time to do that before the expiration of the contract.”