NHL owners yesterday offered to share future profits with players as part of a last-minute proposal to end a season-long lockout, but the union rejected the offer because it also includes a limit on player salaries, which the players consider a non-starter.
With the 2004-05 season clearly slipping away, NHL Players' Association senior director Ted Saskin proposed that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Bob Goodenow bargain face-to-face in New York City today, and the sides have agreed to meet.
"Both sides are in agreement that we're down to it," said NHL chief operating officer Bill Daly in a telephone conference call with media. "Obviously, Bob and Gary need to be in the room to get a deal done. Hopefully we'll have a productive day tomorrow. . . . Obviously we all have a lot of work in front of us if we're going to play hockey this season."
Saskin said: "We're at a crucial time period, there's no doubt about that." Asked if he found any reason for optimism heading into today's meeting, he responded: "Unfortunately not," adding that the "lobbing proposals back and forth" was not productive.
In addition to a 50-50 split in profits above a negotiated threshold, the NHL yesterday proposed a six-year labor agreement that included a $32 million minimum and $42 million limit on team payrolls; jointly monitored accounting on league financial information; increasing the league's minimum salary to $300,000; and reducing the age at which players reach free agency from 31 to 30, with the possibility of further reducing it to 28. The union has the right to open the contract for renegotiation after four years.
Saskin called the profit-sharing proposal "fairly vague," but he said it was an idea that could be advanced and discussed further if it were not part of a salary cap proposal.
The owner lockout that began on Sept. 16 is in its 140th day and has resulted in the cancellation of 762 of 1,230 regular season games, as well as the All-Star Game.
Both Bettman and Goodenow have refused to compromise on their positions. Bettman is pledged to achieving a player salary cap, which he calls "cost certainty," as a way to control costs and return the league to profitability. Goodenow and the players are adamantly opposed to any salary cap because they believe it prevents the players from earning top dollar for their services.
The sides have been trading proposals since Dec. 9, when the union proposed a luxury tax and immediate 24 percent rollback on all existing player contracts. The NHL declined the offer, saying it didn't guarantee long-term cost controls.
Saskin said yesterday that the league and union were closely aligned on several non-salary related issues, but the union was steadfast in its belief that a salary cap proposal in any form would not lead to a collective bargaining agreement.
-- Tarik El-Bashir
and Thomas Heath