BY GEORGE RICHARDS
NEW YORK -- Not long after nearly 300 players stood behind hockey union boss Donald Fehr in a show of solidarity did NHL commissioner Gary Bettman disclose all 30 of his owners are firmly behind the path he is taking.
Definitely not good news to those few hockey fans still hoping NHL players won't be locked out come Sunday morning.
Although Bettman repeatedly said he hoped a deal between the NHL and its player's association could be worked out by Saturday's midnight deadline, he sure didn't sound optimistic when he closed his comments to the media at a Times Square hotel by saying "I hope to see you soon and I hope it's with better news.''
The collective bargaining agreement the two sides have lived under the past seven seasons expires Saturday at midnight; Bettman has said the league will lockout its players for the third time since 1994 if a deal isn't reached by then.
No meetings between the two sides are scheduled.
The Panthers plan on having their first practice of training camp on Sept. 22. If the lockout goes through as expected, the Panthers -- as well as all other teams -- will be banned from having any contact with their players.
"We're standing behind our proposal and we want a fair deal. We're standing behind each other,'' said Florida Panthers winger Kris Versteeg.
"You can't predict anything. We have to take it day-by-day. But we're adamant about getting a deal done so we can play hockey. We have crazy support. The support we have in the NHL is pretty amazing.''
Said Fehr: "The players want to reach an agreement, provided it's one that is fair, equitable and treats them appropriately. .-.-. The subject of their possibly being a lockout coming at 12:01 Sunday morning has come up. We had a discussion about that. That is a choice being made. No one has to do it.''
On Thursday, Bettman said a show of hands from the 30 team representatives at the Board of Governors meeting was called in support of Bettman.
Bettman said the vote, which he noted wasn't necessary for a lockout to be called, was unanimous. The NHLPA has said a season could start on time under the old CBA giving the two sides more time to negotiate. Bettman, who criticized the union for there "not being any urgency to get a deal done,'' said that will not happen.
"No one wants a deal and to play hockey more than I do,'' Bettman said when asked what he would tell fans about yet another lockout under his watch. "This is what I do, what my life is about as far as how I spend most of my waking hours. This is really hard. .-.-. I feel terrible about it.''
The two sides sound far apart in their negotiations, yet not as dire as it was in 2004 when an entire season was lost. Then, the NHL drastically cut players' pay and instituted a salary cap. Although the players appeared to have lost badly in the previous deal, things have worked out pretty good for both sides over the course of the pact.
The first salary cap for the 2005-06 season was $39 million; it was expected to be $70 million in 2012-13. The average player made $1.4 million in 2005-06. Last year, the average NHL player made $1 million more.
"The thought then was they got slammed,'' Bettman said. "We made a fair deal, one that ended up being more fair than it should have been.''
The NHL was in bad financial shape during the last lockout, yet things have improved.
Not only has the NHL grown in popularity -- which led to a new 10-year television deal in the U.S. -- but the league had record revenues of $3 billion last season. Players received 57 percent of hockey-related revenue in the previous CBA, a cut of the money the league wants to significantly reduce.
The NHLPA says the league is growing its revenue at about seven percent per season, a number it bases its proposals on. Bettman said Thursday that number is inflated as it relies too heavily on the rapid growth of the Canadian dollar, the wildly successful relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg and the new television deal.
The initial offer from the league was that the two sides flip, with the league taking 57 percent of the revenue and players getting 43 percent. Although players called that offer comical, Bettman defended it on Thursday.
Bettman not only compared the NHL's first offer to those of the NFL and NBA, but added the owners take all the risk in running their teams as well as covering things like travel and equipment for players and should have a higher percentage of the hockey revenue pie.
"The NBA's first offer was 40.5 percent and the NFL -- coming off 60 percent -- their first offer was 45,'' he asked. "So we were within range of what other unions bargained against and ultimately resolved. If you think 43 percent is unfair, remember [itals] we [itals] have been getting 43 percent to run everything and pay the expenses.''
The two sides are a little closer these days, although it doesn't look like much has happened to bridge the remaining gap.
At 1:30 on Thursday afternoon, the large group of players gathered in New York filed into a fifth floor ballroom at the Marriott Marquis. Then Fehr came in and answered questions from the large media throng. Just under two hours later and two blocks away, Bettman met with the same media at the Crowne Plaza.
Both Fehr and Bettman have spun the issues but the bottom line is: money will be the deciding factor. How much the union decides to surrender from its last pact with the league probably weighs heaviest on how long this impasse will last.
"We're all on the same page and I feel great about that,'' said George Parros, the enforcer Florida signed away from Anaheim in July. "We all want a deal done so we can play hockey. And we're going to stay strong until that happens. We're willing to talk and negotiate to get a deal done.''
-- The Panthers were represented at the NHLPA meetings by Versteeg, Parros, Dmitry Kulikov and Tyson Strachan.
-- With the lockout looming, the Panthers assigned eight more players to their AHL affiliate in San Antonio after they cleared waivers. Those players included Mike Caruso, Casey Wellman and Nolan Yonkman.