About a half hour after Donald Fehr said the labor war between the NHL and the union was almost over, it seemed to get bloodier Thursday night.
While Fehr, executive director of the NHL Players’ Association, was painting a rosy picture during a news conference in New York and saying the sides had “a complete agreement on dollars,” the NHLPA was receiving a voicemail from the league, telling it that the union’s proposal was rejected.
The lockout lives. The NHL season stays dark. Fact is, the season may be headed toward its death if you listen to Gary Bettman, the NHL’s beleaguered commissioner.
Speaking in a controlled but irate tone, Bettman said all of the NHL’s “make whole” proposal of $300 million _ the money would go toward guaranteeing players’ contracts _ has come “off the table.” He added that owners who attended some meetings this week told him “the process is over.”
Bettman spoke after the NHL rejected a proposal from the players’ union.
“It comes as a disappointment, obviously,” Fehr said during the 82d night of the lockout. “The next move is to talk to the membership and figure out what we do from there.”
Bettman said he was “disappointed beyond belief” and that “we’ll take a deep breath and try to regroup.”
According to Bettman, the union was “shockingly silent” when the league upped its “make whole” offer from $211 million to $300 million on Wednesday.
“The owners were beside themselves,” he said. “Some of them, I’ve never seen so emotional. (They) told me the process is over.”
Ten minutes before he was aware of the voicemail from NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly that said the league had rejected the players’ offer, Fehr said he believed a collective bargaining agreement would soon be signed.
Bettman later called that view “almost incomprehensible” and that it’s “not the first time (Fehr) said we’re close when we weren’t.” He added that the last time Fehr said the sides were close, “we were a billion dollars apart.”
Fehr’s positive spin at the news conference was odd because earlier in the day, the union said it wanted federal mediators to intervene again, hinting there were negotiating problems.
The NHL wants a 10-year CBA that includes an “escape clause” after eight years, while the players’ union has proposed an eight-year deal, with an “opt out” after six years.
Another major issue: The maximum length of players’ contracts and salary variability from year to year. The owners want a five-year maximum limit on player contracts, with a daily increase capped at five percent; the players have proposed an eight-year contract maximum, with higher increases.
Daly said the league’s term limit on players’ contracts was critical to the NHL, calling it “the hill we’ll die on.” He also said the union in the last few days had added a “capped escrow” into the negotiations.
Fehr said transition rules, such as amnesty and buyouts, also need to be ironed out.
Thursday’s meeting lasted about an hour, and it included 16 players, Fehr and his brother, Steve, who is special counsel to the NHLPA, Daly, and NHL attorney Bob Batterman.
Winnipeg defenseman Ron Hainsey said the NHL told players on Wednesday that bringing Donald Fehr back into the room was potentially "a deal-breaker."
The Denver Post quoted a source from "deep inside players side" as saying, "We were ready to play again. But Don came in (Wednesday) and told us we could get more and to hold out."
Bettman, who said the NHL has no interest in bringing the mediators back into negotiations, said there was “no magic date” for when the season would have to be canceled if a CBA wasn’t in place. He said anything less than a 48-game season would not work.
"I hope that going backwards does not prevent a deal,” said Ron Burkle, one of the Penguins’ owners. He was one of six NHL owners at the bargaining table earlier this week.
Contact Sam Carchidi at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @BroadStBull.