The NHL and its players' union bridged a major philosophical divide yesterday, but the sides remained far apart on a new collective bargaining agreement as of late last night, sending the five-month-old labor negotiations down to the wire.
The union made a major concession earlier in the day when it offered a salary cap -- something it adamantly opposed for months. The NHL also backed off on its insistence that players' salaries and benefits not exceed a certain percentage of league revenues.
The league tendered what it called its "final" offer last night, proposing a salary cap of $42.5 million per team -- up from the $40 million it had offered Monday night -- and telling the union it had until 11 a.m. today to respond.
The union rejected that proposal late last night and countered with a $49 million cap proposal, down from the $52 million it had previously offered. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman responded to the union's counterproposal by calling it "disappointing."
Bettman has scheduled a 1 p.m. news conference today, when he is expected to announce the cancellation of the season unless a last-minute deal is reached.
"This offer is not an invitation to begin negotiations -- it's too late for that," Bettman said in a letter to NHL Players' Association Executive Director Bob Goodenow that accompanied the final offer. "This is our last effort to make a deal that's fair to the players and one that the clubs [hopefully] can afford.''
The sides were not physically meeting yesterday and were communicating through letters.
"We wish that the NHL had offered a 'no linkage' proposal before yesterday so that negotiations in that arena could have commenced sooner," Goodenow said in a letter to Bettman. "However, we recognize that they did not and we agree that time is short."
If Bettman cancels the season today, the NHL will become the first major North American sports league to lose an entire season over a labor disagreement. If the sides work something out at the last minute, Bettman has a 28-game shortened season planned with a full, four rounds of Stanley Cup playoffs.
The owners locked out the players Sept. 15 because the union would not negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement that would limit the amount teams could spend on player salaries and benefits, also known as a salary cap. The lockout is in its 153rd day, and the league so far has cancelled 834 of the 1,230 regular season games, plus the All-Star Game.
The sides had been lobbing proposals back and forth for months but did not break through the philosophical barrier until the union and league representatives were gathered in Niagara Falls, N.Y., Monday night and early yesterday. The players agreed to some imposition of a salary cap, and the owners in turn agreed that they would not tie the collective salaries and benefits of all 700 players to a percentage of league revenues. The league proposal also includes a tax on payrolls that exceed $34 million.
The players' latest proposal also includes a previous offer of an across-the-board cut of 24 percent in existing player contracts, which could save the league $500 million over the next several years. The union proposal also includes taxes on payrolls starting at $40 million and gradually increasing as payrolls rise to $52 million.
Agent J.P. Barry, managing director at IMG who represents union vice president Daniel Alfredsson as well as several other major NHL players, called the union's salary cap proposal a "major concession by the union that eliminates any philosophical barrier to a deal."
Stan Kasten, former president of the Atlanta Thrashers, said the owners' agreement not to tie player salaries to an overall percentage of league revenues was another concession.
"The league is going to take a leap of faith and hope revenues remain reasonably strong and hope the other fixes offered in their plan can keep expenses in check," Kasten said.