NEW YORK — Winnipeg Jets defenseman Ron Hainsey is getting antsy. Not only is he anxious to get back to the bargaining table with the NHL, he really wants to be on the ice with his teammates.
Just not at all costs and not without the right deal.
As part of the negotiating committee for the players’ association, Hainsey has kept busy during the lockout by taking part in the ongoing talks with the NHL. But ongoing is now a relative term, because nothing has been going on between the sides since talks broke down again last week, despite the presence of a federal mediator for two days in New Jersey.
“We’ve said it a number of times, but it’s worth repeating: It’s obviously very difficult to make a deal if you’re not meeting or negotiating,” Hainsey told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Tuesday. “I’ve yet to see a way we can do it without sitting down across a table from each other.”
Two weeks ago, progress was made during several consecutive days of negotiations between players and owners in New York. The sides disagree on how close they might have moved toward a deal, but a major breakdown at the end wrecked any hope for a fast solution.
Since then, there’s been no collective bargaining agreement in sight and no talks were planned as of Tuesday afternoon.
“Nothing scheduled at this point,” Hainsey said. “We’ve always said we’re open to sit down and meet any time, and now we’re kind of in a situation where no one wants to make the first move. Maybe there is a way of doing it. Communication the past couple of days has been quiet. Maybe there is some way to get it started with something similar to what we had (in New York).”
Players’ association executive director Donald Fehr declared then that an agreement was in reach, a notion that was quickly knocked down by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman after the union declined to accept three non-negotiable points. When the offer wasn’t unconditionally accepted, the league turned down the union’s proposal and withdrew any offers it had made.
“We’ve had a few weeks where we worked all week leading up to Thursday and Friday, and it looks like we’re gathering momentum, and then had some setbacks,” the 31-year-old Hainsey said. “Those things make it a bit more difficult. On both sides you get a feeling that you’re making momentum and getting closer, and then you take a step backward. Then things quiet down for a couple of days, and someone has to pick up the phone and re-engage and figure out a forum.
“Personally, I would like to believe that this is not a personal thing or an anger thing. This is the business side of hockey. It’s not easy, I’ve learned that through doing it.”
The lockout reached its 94th day Tuesday, and all games have been canceled through Dec. 30. Bettman has said the league doesn’t want a season with fewer than 48 games per team, so play would likely have to get under way by mid-January for that to be possible.
“We would prefer that we were done already,” Hainsey said. “There is still time to get something done and salvage a reasonable number of games for a season. We’re not up against a hard deadline yet, but we are getting short on time.”
If the NHL isn’t going to play, a member of the Canadian parliament believes the Stanley Cup should be awarded to an amateur team instead. Brent Rathgeber said the Cup could be the prize in a national competition to determine the best non-pro team in Canada.
A group of recreational players made a similar suggestion during the 2004-05 lockout, when they argued in court that Lord Stanley’s Cup wasn’t the exclusive property of the NHL. An out-of-court settlement back then said the Cup’s trustees have the option — but not the obligation — of awarding the prize to another team if there is no NHL champion.
After labor talks ended last week, the focus suddenly shifted toward the courts when the NHL filed a federal class action suit Friday, seeking to establish that its lockout is legal. In a separate move, the NHL filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming the players’ association has bargained in bad faith.
The NHL says the union’s executive board is seeking authorization to give up its collective bargaining rights, a necessary step before players could file an antitrust lawsuit. The union has declined comment, although a vote on the matter will reportedly be completed Thursday.
“Unfortunately the league filed suit against the players,” Hainsey said. “That’s never something you want to get to, obviously. It would be much more difficult to see a quick settlement through the courts than bargaining.”
Hainsey maintains his optimism that if the sides can find their way back to the table they can figure out the path to a deal. The outlook is now somewhat cloudy because not only have the sides failed to work out an agreement, they appear to have lost some direction on how to get the process going again.
Federal mediation hasn’t helped much in two tries over a combined four days. The most success seemed to come in New York, when six owners joined about 18 players in talks without Bettman and Fehr in the room until the end of that process. Hainsey, who is in the final season of a five-year deal he signed with the former Atlanta Thrashers, is all for trying that again.
“Both (sides) were very respectful of each other,” he said. “They were good meetings, they were productive, we did make progress. We were very appreciative of the way we were treated in the meetings by the owners. … Maybe it’s something that is worth revisiting and worthwhile and could possibly bring us closer to a deal.”