Darkness is about to descend on the National Hockey League.
Reiterating that the season won't start until there is a new collective bargaining agreement, commissioner Gary Bettman offered an impassioned defence of the league's stance Thursday as it headed toward its fourth work stoppage in 20 years.
"Listen, nobody wants to make a deal and play hockey more than I do, OK?" he said during a news conference. "This is what I do. This is what my life is about in terms of how I spend most of my waking hours. This is really hard.
"And so you only get involved in this situation when you understand what the issues are and you know you're doing the right thing for the long-term stability of our game and our sport.
This is very hard and I feel terrible about it."
No one is holding out hope that an 11th-hour deal will be struck before the CBA expires Saturday at 9 p.m. PT. Both Bettman and Donald Fehr, the executive director of the NHL Players' Association, spoke in a manner that made another work stoppage seem inevitable after wrapping up important meetings with their constituents.
They have no plans to return to the bargaining table before the deadline passes.
Instead, it appears as if hockey will enter yet another work stoppage - with a source indicating that pre-season games will start being cancelled as soon as next week. Training camps scheduled to open Sept. 21 will also soon be a casualty, with the first regular-season games not too far behind.
Fehr said the players made large concessions after the entire 2004-05 season was wiped out by a lockout. Since then, overall revenues have grown dramatically.
He asked whether it was fair or equitable that the owners want more concessions and reiterated that they will be the ones choosing to shut the doors.
"The players want to find a way to make an agreement. They want to negotiate until we do," Fehr, flanked by many of the game's top players, told a packed news conference.
Sidney Crosby, Henrik Zetterberg, John Tavares, Zdeno Chara, Henrik Lundqvist, Daniel Alfredsson and Zach Parise were just a handful of the 283 players who turned up in New York for two days of meetings. They emerged presenting a united front and spoke with the same calmness as Fehr, whom they hired in 2010 with the express purpose of getting a good deal in these negotiations.
While the players would rather be preparing for training camp, Crosby indicated that they're not willing to do it at any cost.
"I know in my case not playing for as long as I did the last year and a half, I obviously want to play," he said. "But I think you also have to realize that there's principles here and you have to understand what's right.
"And I think we believe that what we propose is in that right direction. If you look at both [proposals], yeah they're definitely different. But if you have a non-biased opinion, you look at the facts, I think our mindset and the direction we're going is one that seems like it's a little bit more fair for both sides."
The sides returned to the negotiating table on Wednesday and each made adjustments to previous proposals.
The owners asked players to cut their share of hockey-related revenue during a six-year proposal. Current industry revenue is pegged at $3.3 billion US annually.
Initially, owners sought to drop the percentage given to players to 43 per cent from the current 57 per cent. They have since amended that to a deal that starts at 49 per cent the first year, drops to 48 per cent the next and is set at 47 per cent for the remaining four.
The NHLPA is offering a package that starts at 54.3 per cent and ends at 52.7 per cent - something Fehr referred to as a "shared sacrifice."
Bettman noted the average player salary had gone from $1.45 million to $2.55 million in seven years.
© Copyright 2013