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Owners put puck talks on hold

NHLPA's Fehr says sessions on hold

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NEW YORK -- Labour peace appears to remain elusive for the NHL.

Collective bargaining negotiations between the league and NHL Players' Association were placed on hold Friday, leaving the sport on course for its fourth work stoppage in the past two decades. With a Sept. 15 deadline looming for a lockout, the sides have a sizable gap to make up and no scheduled meetings.

"We'll be prepared to resume when they are," said Donald Fehr, the NHLPA's executive director. "Hopefully, that won't be too long."

Gary Bettman made it clear that he believes it is up to the union to make the next move. The NHL commissioner was expecting Fehr to table a counter-proposal on Friday, but instead was presented with a series of alternative options that could be applied to the fourth year of the NHLPA's original offer.

That prompted Bettman to conclude that a week which began with promise ended in "disappointment."

On Tuesday, the NHL presented a proposal for a six-year deal that would see players receive 46 per cent of revenues -- a US$460-million improvement from its initial offer of 43 per cent. However, the union argued that negotiations should instead be measured from the current position of 57 per cent.

Bettman felt the NHLPA had "stonewalled" the process by failing to produce a counter-proposal and indicated that they would need to be ready to do that for talks to resume.

"Somebody needs to be in a position to offer or say something new," said Bettman. "And considering that we made such a large move on Tuesday, to have gotten the response that we got is disappointing.

"We're not in a position to go back and offer more and negotiate against ourselves."

Fehr said either side could restart talks and that he expected neither "would stand on ceremony." He and other NHLPA staff plan to remain in New York for the next two weeks in the event bargaining sessions resume.

If a new deal isn't reached by Sept. 15, the league will lock out the players -- something it did in 1994 and again in 2004-05, when it became the first North American sports league to lose an entire season to a labour dispute.

The NHLPA staged a 10-day strike prior to the 1992 playoffs.

Both Fehr and Bettman referenced the sport's troubled history on Friday while making strong statements about the status of the current talks.

"We're looking for labour peace, we don't like going through this process," said Bettman. "It's not fun for anybody."

The sides have been unable to find agreement on the amount of money players will be paid next season. The owners want to see an immediate reduction -- the NHL's latest offer would result in 19 per cent less being paid out -- while the players are unwilling to have the overall pool drop from the $1.87 billion they received in 2011-12.

With the league currently posting record revenues, Fehr said "the players' overall feeling is they are not prepared to, and don't feel it's appropriate to, see an absolute further reduction in their aggregate salaries."

Beyond those fundamental economic issues, there is a struggle to find common ground on the process.

The league is pushing for a longer-term agreement while the union favours a short one. Bettman also remains steadfast about the fact they must settle the financial framework before other topics are tackled. However, Fehr requested Friday that talks continue on secondary issues even with the main discussion now on hiatus.

With so little agreement to be found -- and time beginning to run short -- Bettman suggested that the union might be intentionally slowing down the process as a negotiating tactic.

"Maybe the strategy was to get the world mad at us because (we've said) there's going to be a lockout (without a new deal by Sept. 15)," said Bettman.

The NHLPA's proposal includes a lower share of revenue for players over the first three years of the offer and a return to the current level of 57 per cent in the fourth. On Friday, it attempted to engage the league on discussions about ways to make that final year more attractive.

The union is also pushing for greater revenue sharing to help out less financially sound teams -- an issue Bettman called a "distraction" because he believes the sides aren't far apart on it.

Talks had tentatively been scheduled for next week in New York, but now appear unlikely to happen. That development didn't sway Fehr from the even-keel approach he's maintained since formal negotiations began at the end of June.

"You get to times in collective bargaining in which one side or the other is not prepared to have further discussions for whatever set of reasons," he said. "And you have to get through them."

Bettman showed a little more emotion. With both sides digging in, he was left struggling to envision a way forward.

"In light of what happened this week, there's not much for us to say," said Bettman. "Because to move $460 million and then be told 'We're not moving on the core economics' (by the NHLPA) doesn't leave us much room to go anywhere."

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 1, 2012 C1

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