NEW YORK (AP) –- The NHL season could start without a new labor agreement if both sides agree to continue talks beyond the Sept. 15 expiration of the current deal.
NHL players association executive director Don Fehr said Wednesday “the players haven’t considered what they would do on Sept. 15 or any other date if no agreement is in place.”
If there is no agreement by the expiration date, work could go on under the old pact if management and players agree to that, Fehr said. The regular season is scheduled to start on Oct. 11.
Fehr, the former head of the baseball players’ union, said there were a number of times during his 33 years there when a season went on without a collective bargaining agreement.
Fehr spoke at a news conference in Chicago at the end of meetings with NHL players that began in that city on Monday. He said he expects formal talks with the league to begin this week with regular meetings through July.
The league’s free-agent signing period begins on Sunday.
“I expect the players will have a lot of suggestions and proposals” to discuss with owners, Fehr said, adding repeatedly that he wouldn’t discuss public those matters or his conversations with players.
He also wouldn’t predict how the talks would go, but said he hoped there would be no issues of trust between him and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. During the Stanley Cup finals in New Jersey earlier this month, they both shook hands and posed for a photo prior to Game 1.
“Gary’s a pro. I’m a pro,” said Fehr, standing in front of about 20 NHL players. “We’ve been doing this a long time.”
Before Fehr was with the union, the NHL canceled the 2004-05 season before a deal was reached that included a salary cap for the first time. It was widely seen that players made major concessions.
But the league’s financial picture has improved since then.
Bettman said last month the NHL had record revenues of more than $3.1 billion last season, although he wouldn’t say what the profit was.
“The players understand what happened last time. Of course they do,” Fehr said. “Every agreement that you make, however, stands on its own and you have to go forward. And you don’t start the negotiations by announcing that you want a less favorable arrangement.”
So is a salary cap a fact of life for the players?
“It is a fact of life for them now. It has been since the lockout ended and the agreement was reached,” Fehr said. “It’ll be pretty clear early on where the parties stand on that.”
One major issue figures to be how NHL revenue gets divided between management and players.
A work stoppage would be the third in a major sports league in just over a year. The NBA season didn’t start until late December because of a labor dispute. An NFL lockout forced cancellation of most of last year’s offseason training program and delayed the start of training camp.
Can a delay in the NHL season be avoided?
“The league and the game have had a good couple of years and, in particular, this year,” Fehr said. “The object is to get a deal done which can continue that momentum and continue it uninterrupted. We certainly hope to do that.”
He expects “quite a few” players, but less than 10, to attend the first formal negotiating session. A significant number of players likely will attend future meetings and the union will pay flight and hotel bills for those wanting to be there, Fehr said.
This week’s meetings of the executive board were attended by more than 50 players and focused on issues that are likely to come up during negotiations and normal union business.
Fehr wouldn’t say what the players’ top priority is, when an agreement is likely or what players who were active in 2004 say about the mood during negotiations then as compared with the feeling now.
“I’m really bad at predictions and it doesn’t make a lot of sense to try to do that,” Fehr said. “Nothing would make us happier than to get a resolution that everybody would find acceptable.”
During these NHLPA’s executive board meetings, several players made appearances. On Monday, Washington’s Alex Ovechkin and Chicago’s Jonathan Toews were on hand. And on Tuesday, more than 50 players attended, and broke off into three groups to study the issues and share their ideas before formal talks begin.
On Sunday — labor problems or not — players eligible for unrestricted free agency can begin to sign with teams as of noon EDT. The biggest name out there, is New Jersey forward Zach Parise, who led the Devils to the Stanley Cup finals, where they lost to Los Angeles in six games.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)