DETROIT, June 6 (UPI) -- Insisting he is looking for a solution and not a fight, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman Thursday urged the Players' Association to begin negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement because the current system cannot continue.
Such a move is unlikely because the existing CBA, one under which players' salaries have increased dramatically, does not expire until Sept. 15, 2004. But Bettman, addressing the media before Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals, said the NHL's economic problems will only worsen over the next 2 1/2 years.
"In many ways, this sport has never been more popular, never been stronger. The economics, though, are not working," the commissioner said. "While we've seen revenues grow, players' salaries have gone up even faster, and that has created some difficulties for some of our franchises. It's totally inflationary.
"My goal is to get to 2004, if the union won't negotiate sooner, with 30 franchises so that we can fix the problem with all of them. But this situation can't continue indefinitely."
Bettman said he is philosophically opposed to contraction, adding he hopes to avoid a work stoppage in advance of a new contract. But he stressed the need for "cost certainty," stopping short of calling for a salary cap.
"The union knows exactly what our issues are and how we think they need to be solved. It's not anything the union has indicated any willingness to address right now," Bettman said. "It's not their legal obligation at this point in time, but I do believe that the longer this goes on, the harder it's going to be to fix. If the problem is greater in two years, it isn't going to be because we didn't try to fix it sooner."
There are NHL franchises that continue to lose money, but Bettman refused to say how many.
The relationship between the league and the NHLPA will not be helped by a proposed tax in Alberta designed to increase revenue for the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers. Union leaders have talked about filing a grievance, a process Bettman dismissed as misguided.
"Government decides what policies are," he said. "There are lots of instances where municipalities, provinces impose taxes to build arenas and do anything. It's a governmental decision."
Bettman took it a step further, criticizing the union for "a callous disregard for the plight of some of our small-market teams."
Until there is discussion of a new CBA, the league will not even consider sending NHL players to the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy, although it is moving ahead with plans to hold a second World Cup tournament that would conclude just before the current CBA expires, Bettman said.
"I don't think we're in a position to address 2006 until we address 2004. It's too fundamental to the future of our game for us to be worrying about that," he said.