TORONTO - As it tabled its first offer in the latest round of NHL labour talks, the NHL Players' Association presented itself as a partner looking to help fix the league's problems — but not one willing to bear all the burden.
Flanked by superstars Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr said Tuesday the union's offer includes a smaller percentage of revenues for players and an expanded revenue sharing program to help struggling teams.
"We do believe that the proposal the players made today, once implemented, can produce a stable industry ... that can give us a chance to move beyond the recurring labour strife that has plagued the NHL the last two decades," said Fehr.
By the union's calculations, the deal could see players give up as much as US$465 million in revenue if the league continues to grow at an average rate for the next three seasons.
The proposal includes delinking the salary cap from hockey-related revenue and setting a fixed rate — increasing by two per cent for the first year, four per cent for the second and six per cent for the third. Afterwards, the players would hold an option to have the fourth year revert back to the current system, where they are entitled to receive 57 per cent of all revenues.
The belief from the NHLPA is that owners would be able to pocket more profits over the first three years of the deal, some of which could be dispersed to struggling franchises in an effort to strengthen the league overall.
"I like it a lot," Crosby said of the proposal. "I think, as Don said, it's addressing the issues that the league has. (We're) making sure as players that we do our part to help those (struggling) teams out, but also holding the teams accountable.
"At the end of the day, it's going to take both (sides) to do that."
The current CBA expires Sept. 15 and the NHL has said there will be a lockout if a new agreement isn't in place by then.
After receiving the union's offer, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said he hoped that the league would be able to examine it closely enough so that it could be discussed when talks resume Wednesday.
"It's clear to me that they didn't put it together in an hour or two, and as a result we're going to need to take a little bit of time to evaluate it," Bettman said.
The most surprising part of the union's proposal was that it didn't call for the removal of the hard salary cap the league won coming out of the 2004-05 lockout. Fehr indicated that the union decided to work with that concept because the owners felt strongly about the need to keep it.
The union boss called the proposed revenue sharing plan "significantly expanded, more aggressive and more targeted" than what currently exists. It would see more than $250 million spread around each season.
"In essence, when you boil it all down, what were suggesting is that the players partner with the financially stronger owners to stabilize the industry and assist the less financially strong ownership groups," said Fehr.
The proposal comes after the league laid its offer out on July 13. It called for an immediate 24 per cent decrease in player salaries — accomplished by lowering the union's share of revenue — while introducing new contract restrictions, including a five-year cap on contracts.
According to the NHLPA, its proposal doesn't include "significant" changes to rules governing players contracts.
With the Sept. 15 deadline looming, it appears the talks have started to take on more urgency. Both sides have said repeatedly that they're anxious to avoid a lockout, especially after an entire season was lost the last time they negotiated an agreement.
Since then, the union has installed Fehr as its executive director and the players seemed thrilled with the crafty first proposal he unveiled Tuesday.
"Everything that we've done has been well thought out," said Ottawa Senators forward Jason Spezza. "There's a reason behind our proposal. The biggest reason is because we want to try to find a way to play and find a way to reach a fair agreement."
Added Fehr: "The players want a new CBA and they want it soon."