TORONTO – Don Fehr would like to get back to the bargaining table.
But after Thursday's blow-up in New York City, which saw the league pull every element of its latest offer off the table, the Players Association leader isn't quite sure when that time will be.
"It's up to them," Fehr said, following a speech to the Canadian Auto Workers union at a downtown Toronto hotel, one that concluded with a standing ovation from those in attendance. "They're the ones who called a halt to the process.
"The one thing we know for certain is that you can't make agreements if you're not talking about it."
Negotiations on the latest collective bargaining agreement came to a thunderous stop earlier this week, following a series of talks between players and owners. Fehr suggested early Thursday evening that the two parties were nearing a deal to solve the ongoing lockout, an insinuation that riled a fiery response from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who claimed that a large gulf still remained.
Bettman stated with much frustration that while the two sides had bridged some gaps, the latest offer from the owners was a "package deal" not to be picked apart for choice issues. With deputy commissioner Bill Daly at his side, Bettman said that if Fehr and the players would not agree to the proposed term of the CBA (10 years with an opt-out after eight), term limits on player contracts (five years, seven to a team's own player) and other compliance issues, then the proposal in its entirety was off the table.
He also suggested that he and the owners felt as if they were negotiating with themselves, handing the players multiple givebacks with no reciprocity.
Fehr could only laugh at the insinuation. "All I can tell you is that the way this negotiation sits," he opined, "the percentage that players get out of industry revenues – assuming that the current proposals on the tables hold – would result in massive concessions to the owners. Massive. So when they say they're negotiating against themselves, my question is what exactly is it that's moved in the players direction? It's not salaries, it's not contracting rights, it's not length of contract.
"So I'm not sure what that means. If they mean they're negotiating against themselves in the sense that they had a series of proposals and they've modified those proposals, you're forgetting what the benchmarks of the agreements are. You have to have a starting point and the starting point is the last agreement."
Fehr wouldn't comment specifically on the league rescinding its' latest offer and maintained belief that the two sides were in fact "close" on an agreement, specifically as it relates to dollars. He was unsure though how to mend the pending gap on term limits for player contracts. The union offered eight years in their latest proposal to the league. "At the moment I don't know how to bridge it," he said. "I thought we were moving closer together."
The NHL has already canceled games up until December 14 with the threat of another lost season looming. While the parties remain in contact, they've yet to establish a time-frame for further meetings.
Maintaining his now standard cool demeanor as the lockout nears its third month, Fehr clearly is bothered by yet another stoppage in talks. "What's the next step is that one would hope that sooner or later, sooner rather than later, negotiations would resume and we figure out a way through this," he concluded. "It seemed to me that we ought to be able to move forward and try and finish it off. So far at least, they have not indicated a willingness to continue discussions.
"You will notice that throughout this process the players have never made threats, they've never threatened to walk out, they've never done anything of the rest of this. We've had any number of instances of that from the management side. But we'll see, tomorrow's another day."