By TOM CANAVAN
AP Sports Writer
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman expects negotiations with the players' association on a new collective bargaining agreement to begin in a couple of weeks.
In a wide-ranging 25-minute news conference before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals between the Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils, Bettman said Wednesday that talk of a lockout next season is nothing more than speculation at this point since labor and management have not met.
"Time will tell how this all sorts out," Bettman said. "I am hopeful this all sorts out easily because labor peace is preferable to the alternative."
The NHL canceled the 2004-05 season before an agreement was reached that included a salary cap for the first time. That agreement expires in Sept. 15.
Bettman believes the current labor scene is very different than in 2004, adding that new NHL Players Association executive director Donald Fehr is up to speed and knows the issues facing both sides.
"I have some ideas about how it's going to go, but I have learned that making predictions in this business is a bit of a foolish enterprise," said Fehr, who sat in on Bettman's news conference because he wanted to hear him personally instead of watching it on television. "Too many things can happen that can cause you to change course."
Fehr hopes the season can start on time.
"That's the goal," he said. "Hopefully, it is a goal that everyone shares."
Bettman also said he expects the sale of the Phoenix Coyotes to be finalized and that he is hopeful that Devils owner Jeff Vanderbeek will be able to stabilize his financial position with the team. The commissioner also shot down a New York newspaper report that the Kings were for sale.
Neither Bettman nor Fehr wanted to discuss what they felt would be the major issues in the upcoming labor talks although the obvious issue will be money.
"You don't have the kind of atmosphere going on which necessarily presaged a conflict," Fehr said. "You don't seem to have that. I have been in both situations before and whether you have it or don't, doesn't necessarily predict the outcome. Gary has been through this a number a times, I have been through this a number of times.
"Hopefully, we're both professional enough to treat it that way."
Lockouts have been a part of sports in recent years. The NBA was forced to play a shortened season this year after a five-month labor dispute resulted in a lockout that pushed back the start of the season until late December.
The NFL also experienced a lockout that wiped out most of the offseason training program and had teams reports to training camp late.
"If somebody is suggesting (a lockout)," Bettman said, "it is either because there is something in the water or people still have the NBA and NFL on the brain. Or, they are looking for news on a slow day."
In the talks in 2004, the players' association proposed that all existing contracts be rolled back by 24 percent in an effort to ease the cost to clubs without the creation of the salary cap. The owners liked the idea of the contract cuts. But in the end, they negotiated a deal that included those on top of a salary cap.
Fehr laughed when asked about similar concessions this time around.
"You don't like me in this job," he asked. "We won't make any major economic proposals that the players aren't familiar with and don't approve of. Secondly, they recognize that they made enormous concessions in the last round of bargaining, and that is part of the backdrop that leads us into this round of negotiations along with a lot of other things."
Fehr hopes for a better deal this time around.
"Players understand what happened the last time," said Fehr, the former head of the baseball union. "Everybody understands what happened the last time, and that is part of the backdrop of what these negotiations will be about. I want to caution you, it's not the only thing, but it's there."
Bettman said the NHL had record revenues in excess of $3.1 billion, but he refused to say how much was profit. He said he would talk about that during negotiations with the union.
The commissioner said there was a "modest decline" in concussions this season, the first time that has happened in three years. He refused to get specific.
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