CHICAGO—NHL commissioner Gary Bettman touted the benefits of labour peace while expressing optimism that a lockout won’t be needed in the current round of collective bargaining.
“I hope not,” Bettman said Thursday when asked if he thought there’d be another lockout. “When you have a lockout, it’s because the parties haven’t been able to agree. You can’t in my opinion start a season that you can’t guarantee the fans you can finish.
“The disagreements we’ve had over the years have been about fundamental changes to get the game healthy. In retrospect, the game has gotten healthy. My belief is, labour peace is important.”
Bettman has presided over three lockouts in his tenure, resulting in a salary cap that splits revenue between the league and players on a 50/50 basis.
The league chose on Sept. 1 not to opt out of the current deal, which runs until 2022. The players, many of them gathered in Chicago for the pre-season NHL-NHLPA Player Media Tour, have until Sept. 15 to decide if they want to opt out two years early, in 2020.
Talks have been going on quietly all summer and more are planned, leading to what could turn out to be minor tweaks that extend the current deal. For the players to pull the plug, it would signal that they think a deal more favourable to them is close and they want it sooner rather than later. But it could also anger the owners and ruin the goodwill both sides have built up in talks away from the spotlight.
“The owners know what game they want to play,” said Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. “If you get yourself into a lockout situation, it’s a long tough process on everybody, especially when you want to play hockey. We’ll see where this goes the next few weeks.”
Bettman added that he’s comfortable, though not entirely happy, with the current deal.
“It has given us stability, it has given us stronger franchises, it has given us extraordinary competitive balance, which has made for a great product,” he said. “It has enabled the players to show off their speed and skill because of competitive balance.
“We’re in the strongest position by every metric that we’ve ever been in. Is it perfect from our standpoint? The answer is no. But we made the decision at this point in time that labour peace is more important than trying to fix some of the things we might find unpleasant or irritant.”
Some of the stickier issues were topics of discussions as players made their way through the cameras and microphones Thursday. A return to the Olympics is on the minds of many.
“It would be dream come true, just playing in the Olympics,” said American Dylan Larkin of the Detroit Red Wings. “I take great pride in representing my country playing in the world championships.
“Watching the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver against Canada, that game, it gives me chills talking about it. A key part of the Olympics is ice hockey when the NHL is there. It grows the game. It would be great to get that chance.”
The NHL didn’t participate in last year’s Winter Olympics in South Korea. Bettman didn’t sound like he was in a hurry to go back, largely because the NHL does not have any rights to broadcast even highlights of its own players from the Games.
“The Olympics are an incredible disruption to our season,” said Bettman. “No doubt about it. It affects the competitive integrity of the season, the flow of the season, with no benefit. And I don’t mean financial. We’ve never asked for that. We don’t get to promote the fact we’re there.
“We didn’t miss a beat. We had a great season the year we didn’t go to South Korea.”
Revenue growth — perhaps through international hockey events — is important to both sides. It would increase salaries and mitigate escrow for players while lining the pockets of owners.
A new TV deal in the States is two years away. The league currently gets about $200 million U.S. from NBC. That number should easily triple.
“NBC is a great partner. They’ve been terrific. We look forward to sitting down with them,” said Bettman. “But I’m excited about what the marketplace looks like.”
Late Thursday night, as about 50 players emerged from a meeting, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr sounded optimistic.
“There will be a series of talks and we’ll see where that takes us,” said Fehr. “I can’t predict what the results will be. I suppose what I could say is, if I thought it was a complete waste of time I’d find something else to do.”
Bettman, who clearly indicated there are differences that might not be easily bridged, agreed that talks so far have been cordial.
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“They’ve always been cordial and pleasant and businesslike,” said Bettman. “The areas of disagreement are probably less. Just like we have issues that we think might be adjusted, they do too.
“We made a decision. Now they need to make one for Sept. 15.”
If the players do decide to open the contract early, Bettman said he didn’t expect the tone of talks to necessarily change: “Certainly not for the foreseeable future. A year from now, I can’t predict.”