The uncertainty surrounding the NHL's collective bargaining agreement has prompted the league to call off next fall's games in Europe.
A senior league source confirmed Wednesday that the season-opening overseas games have been cancelled.
It will be the first time since 2007 that teams won't kick off the regular season overseas. As many as six teams have been involved in European games in past seasons.
But with the collective bargaining agreement set to expire on Sept. 15, there is no guarantee there will be games to be played.
So as the league's general managers wrapped up three days of meetings preaching “business as usual” despite the upcoming negotiations, that isn't entirely the case. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly addressed bargaining during the final session with managers on Wednesday and commissioner Gary Bettman discussed it with reporters afterwards.
“I'm not going to comment as to what the next CBA may look like,” said Bettman. “But the CBA that we currently have is in effect until Sept. 15 and we told clubs to continue to operate under the CBA.”
To date, there have been no formal bargaining talks between the league and NHL Players' Association.
However, the sides were in contact about the status of the premiere games for next season. The league was willing to schedule them, but an agreement couldn't be reached with the NHLPA over how cancellation costs would be handled in the event of a work stoppage, according to two sources.
The NHL lost the entire 2004-05 season to a lockout the last time the sides negotiated a collective agreement.
On Wednesday, Bettman expressed confidence that there is still plenty of time to avoid a repeat of that scenario — saying “I'm not worried” on more than one occasion — and indicated the league is ready to start negotiations at any time. The NHLPA wants to wait until the season is over.
“We are continuing to meet with players across the league as part of our preparations for the upcoming CBA negotiations,” NHLPA spokesman Jonathan Weatherdon said in a statement. “At our request, the NHL recently supplied the NHLPA with some initial financial information that we are currently reviewing. While we do not have a set date for formal negotiations to begin, we expect negotiations will begin when we have players available to participate in bargaining sessions.”
The sides clashed earlier this season over a dramatic realignment plan that would have drastically changed the look of the league.
Bettman was thrilled in December after the board of governors managed to come to an agreement on a four-conference format that saw teams placed in better geographical groupings — only to have the union reject it. In January, the league decided to shelve the proposal because it had to start working on a schedule for next season.
“We delayed it probably six to eight weeks longer than we normally do,” said Bettman. “But at some point we just had to move on. I figured better not to have a confrontation now.”
There were few hints at the confrontation to come during three days of GM meetings at a resort on Florida's Atlantic coast. The majority of time was spent discussing tweaks to the game — the GMs decided to propose a new hybrid icing rule — but there's no guarantee that will pass through the 10-man competition committee in June as five of the members are players.
It promises to be an interesting summer in the NHL, where the salary cap will rise from its current position of US$64.3 million, according to Bettman. But it might be pulled back down depending on what is negotiated into the new CBA.
That presents a major challenge for GMs as they look to reshape their rosters through free agency or trades. While none would admit that publicly, it's been a major talking point behind the scenes.
When the doors opened following Wednesday's session, a number of GMs proclaimed that it was “business as usual” — the same message Bettman delivered to reporters. Despite that claim, they will all have to plan carefully as they head into an uncertain economic future.
“Every team is different in (how it plans),” said Philadelphia Flyers GM Paul Holmgren. “The message for us is business as usual. Sooner or later there will be a deal made and we'll play hockey.”
At this point, when that happens is anyone's guess.
Bettman said the length of time needed to negotiate a deal depends on what issues are on the table. It took nearly two years to hammer out the last deal, when the league saw the introduction of a salary cap and a 24 per cent rollback in salaries.
The commissioner met with managers last summer to get their feedback on the current system. However, none of those men wanted to discuss what kind of conversation they had about the CBA privately.
“There's not much to talk about when there's nothing going on,” said Gillis.