TORONTO – Donald Fehr maintains a deal was close with the NHL to end the three-month lockout and kick-start the hockey season before talks broke off.
The NHL Players’ Association executive director stuck by his previous remarks that an agreement appeared to be within reach Thursday night when the league told the union it was rejecting the players’ proposal and pulling its own offer.
“My comments from a couple of days ago stand on their own. I think we were very close,” Fehr told reporters Saturday after addressing a Canadian Auto Workers council meeting.
Fehr’s comments run contrary to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who said angrily Thursday he didn’t think the owners and players were close to a deal.
Fehr said he has not spoken directly with Bettman or deputy commissioner Bill Daly since talks crumbled, adding there have been some minor chatter between the two sides but that no future meetings have been scheduled.
“So far they have not indicated a willingness to continue discussions,” Fehr said.
He also declined to comment directly on previous remarks by Bettman questioning Fehr’s motives for saying a deal was close, saying only he was disappointed with how things turned out.
“I’m always disappointed when you’re involved in a process and people want to call a halt to it,” Fehr said. “The one thing we know for certain is that you can’t make agreements if you’re not talking about it.”
The two sides will have to renew negotiations soon if the remainder of the NHL season is to be saved. The lockout has resulted in the cancellation of 422 regular-season games through Dec. 14. Bettman indicated the league would not consider a schedule of fewer than 48 games — the same length it had after the 1994-95 lockout — which leaves roughly a month to reach an agreement.
But Fehr said negotiations are further ahead than they were a week ago, despite talks collapsing, and that a tentative agreement over a pension plan as well as discussions on money issues are largely done, with the exception of transition payments.
“We think we’re either done on the dollars or very close to it,” he said.
Hopes had been high Tuesday when four new owners joined the negotiation process and met well into the night with players, leading some close to the situation to believe that an agreement was at hand.
But tempers flared during another marathon session Wednesday that saw the sides exchange offers and move closer together.
A comprehensive proposal was handed over to the league by Fehr on Thursday, but the league rejected it and rescinded its own tentative offer.
Fehr told a room packed with CAW members that the players’ association and other labour groups share many traits when it comes to negotiating.
He told the meeting that league negotiators must take into account concessions made by the players in their last collective agreement, as well NHL revenue increases in recent years.
Fehr said he wanted to be the bearer of good news in his talk to the assembled union members.
“I had hoped when this invitation came, and even earlier this week, to be in a position to tell you that we had successfully concluded an agreement and the lockout was over,” he said.
“I can’t tell you when it’s going to end. I can tell you that the only way it’s going to end is to keep at the process and hope that eventually we’re able to find a way through the thicket of issues that are there.”
— With files from Canadian Press reporter Chris Johnston