After a five-month hiatus, negotiations are set to resume next week on a new collective bargaining agreement for the National Hockey League, but only after the league adopted a tough new labor stance.
The leverage to force the union back to the negotiating table was apparently a 16-point list of policy changes the league threatened to impose if it has not concluded a new collective bargaining agreement with the players association by the start of camp next month.
The previous agreement expired last September, and the two sides have not met for negotiations since March. Now, apparently as a result of a letter commissioner Gary Bettman sent last week to Bob Goodenow, the players association executive director, a negotiating session has been scheduled for Aug. 18.
"Now that we have gotten their attention, we can move things forward," said Jeff Pash, the NHL's senior vice president and general counsel.
NHL officials would not discuss the letter, but according to those familiar with it, it includes the following threatened actions:
* Trimming game rosters from 20 to 19 players.
* Eliminating salary arbitration.
* Eliminating a $250,000 lump-sum pension payment to long-term players at age 55.
* Requiring players to pay for their own transportation to training camp.
* Forcing players to contribute to their own medical insurance and making high-paid players bear the full cost of their life, health and disability insurance.
* Banning contracts that require some players to be paid their full NHL salaries when they are assigned to minor-league clubs.
Those and other threatened measures were reportedly designed to save NHL owners some $20 million a year.
"The reaction from players has not been very positive," Goodenow said yesterday in Ontario, where he described contract talks as "not cordial."
"It has taken a turn toward a more difficult, bitter, confrontational approach," he said.
"Needless to say, this kind of an approach does not bode well for bargaining and does not bode well for partnership, and, frankly, flies in the face of the efforts we have made to try and work with the league."
Maybe so, but the league clearly has a different view of the union's efforts to negotiate a new contract, blaming it for refusing all overtures to resume bargaining.
"We could not fathom why the players association would refuse to meet with us for five months," is the way Pash put it.
Indeed, for all the talk from Goodenow and others, the threatened actions may have induced the union to resume negotiations.
"Obviously, you cannot make an agreement or form a partnership when one side refuses to meet," Bettman said in a statement yesterday. "For whatever reason, the players are now willing to meet with us."