By Steve Keating
(Reuters) - The fun and games of the National Hockey League's All-Star weekend turned serious Saturday as league commissioner Gary Bettman and player's union chief Donald Fehr danced around questions about a looming labor war.
With the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) set to expire on September 15, NHL owners and the players association (NHLPA) have been quietly preparing the framework for negotiations that could prove as contentious as those that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season.
Following a board of governors meeting Saturday, Bettman said, there was no set date for negotiations to commence but talks are expected to begin in the days following Sunday's All Star game.
"My hope is that we can reason together and that collective bargaining will be painless and quiet and quick," Bettman told reporters following the board meeting. "That would serve everyone's best interest."
Early indications are that negotiations will be neither quick nor painless.
Fehr, who has earned a reputation as a tough and fearless negotiator from his years heading up Major League Baseball's players union, fired a warning shot across the NHL's bow earlier this month when he rejected the league's plan for realignment and a modified playoff format.
NHL owners also appear emboldened by the significant gains made by National Football League (NFL) and National Basketball Association (NBA) owners in their labor battles last year.
Under the current CBA, NHL players receive 57 percent of hockey related revenue and owners would like to see that number come down closer to a 50-50 split like the NBA and NFL.
Fehr is no fan of the salary cap system, which he refused to accept as head of the baseball players union and is widely expected to push for a CBA that looks more like MLB's, which remains the only major North American league without a hard cap.
"There's significant information that we don't have," said Fehr adding, "We will be prepared to negotiate an agreement."
The only numbers hockey fans were interested in on Saturday, however, were those put up by players taking part in the hardest shot competition won by Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara with a record-smashing 108.8 mph blast.
While the NHL has not found anything to match the excitement of MLB's home run derby or the NBA's slam dunk competition, the hardest shot contest is the event most came to see.
Chara, who set the record of 105.9 mph at last year's skills competition, bettered that mark on his first attempt, slamming a 106.2 mph slap shot.
The hulking defenseman then made sure he would keep his title with a 108.8 mph rocket that drew gasps from the capacity crowd.
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Patrick Johnston