NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman expects negotiations with the players' association on a new collective bargaining agreement to begin in a couple of weeks.
In a wide-ranging 25-minute news conference before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals between the Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils, Bettman said Wednesday that talk of a lockout next season is nothing more than speculation at this point since labor and management have not met.
"Time will tell how this all sorts out," Bettman said. "I am hopeful this all sorts out easily because labor peace is preferable to the alternative."
The NHL canceled the 2004-05 season before an agreement was reached that included a salary cap for the first time. That agreement expires in Sept. 15.
Bettman believes the current labor scene is very different than in 2004, adding that new NHL Players Association executive director Donald Fehr is up to speed and knows the issues facing both sides.
"I have some ideas about how it's going to go, but I have learned that making predictions in this business is a bit of a foolish enterprise," said Fehr, who sat in on Bettman's news conference because he wanted to hear him personally instead of watching it on television. "Too many things can happen that can cause you to change course."
Fehr hopes the season can start on time.
"That's the goal," he said. "Hopefully, it is a goal that everyone shares."
Bettman also said he expects the sale of the Phoenix Coyotes to be finalized and that he is hopeful that Devils owner Jeff Vanderbeek will be able to stabilize his financial position with the team. The commissioner also shot down a New York newspaper report that the Kings were for sale.
Neither Bettman nor Fehr wanted to discuss what they felt would be the major issues in the upcoming labor talks although the obvious issue will be money.
"You don't have the kind of atmosphere going on which necessarily presaged a conflict," Fehr said. "You don't seem to have that. I have been in both situations before and whether you have it or don't, doesn't necessarily predict the outcome. Gary has been through this a number a times, I have been through this a number of times.
"Hopefully, we're both professional enough to treat it that way."
Lockouts have been a part of sports in recent years. The NBA was forced to play a shortened season this year after a five-month labor dispute resulted in a lockout that pushed back the start of the season until late December.
The NFL also experienced a lockout that wiped out most of the offseason training program and had teams reports to training camp late.
"If somebody is suggesting (a lockout)," Bettman said, "it is either because there is something in the water or people still have the NBA and NFL on the brain. Or, they are looking for news on a slow day."
In the talks in 2004, the players' association proposed that all existing contracts be rolled back by 24 percent in an effort to ease the cost to clubs without the creation of the salary cap. The owners liked the idea of the contract cuts. But in the end, they negotiated a deal that included those on top of a salary cap.
Fehr laughed when asked about similar concessions this time around.
"You don't like me in this job," he asked. "We won't make any major economic proposals that the players aren't familiar with and don't approve of. Secondly, they recognize that they made enormous concessions in the last round of bargaining, and that is part of the backdrop that leads us into this round of negotiations along with a lot of other things."
Fehr hopes for a better deal this time around.
"Players understand what happened the last time," said Fehr, the former head of the baseball union. "Everybody understands what happened the last time, and that is part of the backdrop of what these negotiations will be about. I want to caution you, it's not the only thing, but it's there."
Bettman said the NHL had record revenues in excess of $3.1 billion, but he refused to say how much was profit. He said he would talk about that during negotiations with the union.
The commissioner said there was a "modest decline" in concussions this season, the first time that has happened in three years. He refused to get specific.
"We are pleased with the progress, and player behavior has changed," Bettman said.
Earlier Wednesday, the league's general managers had a 4 1/2-hour meeting in New York to discuss potential rules changes.
Nothing was settled, and the most intriguing proposal won't even be truly considered until a year from now, at the earliest. In an attempt to curtail teams in the playoffs from "sending a message" in a physical and illegal way, penalties incurred in the closing minutes of a postseason game could be "traveled" or carried over to the next game in the series.
These would be penalties that wouldn't necessarily be subject to a suspension, but also not incidental to the regular course of play. One example could be the hit that Nashville's Shea Weber laid on Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg in the first round. Weber was fined $2,500 for smashing Zetterberg's head into the glass.
"It's radical," Red Wings GM Ken Holland said. "We think there is something there. Let's all stew on it, let's think about it, and when we reconvene next year, we can further discuss it if we think it's got merit. Nobody else does it, so we don't just want to sit here in a room and in 10 minutes make that determination.
"The reason you put rules in, you really don't want people to break the rules. But if they do break the rules, then you want to have somebody with some power to discipline somebody. Right now, is there a gray area late in the game whereby there is not a suspension and people can do a lot of message-sending, does a deterrent of a possible traveling penalty have merit?"
The GMs also discussed the hybrid icing rule, which combines touch and no-touch icing. Although only one player was injured this season on an icing play, there is concern that races for the puck at the end boards creates a potentially unnecessary dangerous situation.
Before that would ever be adopted into the NHL, the GMs would like to try it out in the American Hockey League. It is already used in college hockey.
Several of the managers are also concerned that the game is becoming too defensive-minded and trending more toward a soccer-type style. The New York Rangers secured the top seed in the East and reached the conference finals by strengthening their defensive play with a team-wide dedication to blocking shots.
After the NHL lockout wiped out the 2004-05 NHL season, a package of new rules to spice up the game was adopted. Something similar could be coming in the not so distant future.
"I like offense in the game and I like offensive opportunities," Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis said. "If those opportunities aren't present in the course of a game, I don't like it and I don't support that.
"What I've seen is the lowering of scoring opportunities. You don't see many odd-man rushes at all, and the collapsing around your own net to block shots and not challenge the point man."
The NHL plans to have a bit of a rules summit in August to discuss what issues clubs are having with rules such as hooking, holding and interference, and what changes might have to be made in the way those infractions are whistled.
General managers, coaches, players and referees are expected to attend.
"I want to know what is real," said Colin Campbell, the NHL's senior vice president of hockey operations. "Sometimes you can get more at the problem in August after the season has gone away before we start another season." -- (AP)
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