Jason Mulholland paints red hash marks at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Sept. 27, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, The Tampa Bay Times, Dirk Shadd
NEW YORK, N.Y. - Any goodwill built during an extended run of collective bargaining talks between the NHL and NHL Players' Association quickly evaporated Friday.
The sides emerged red-faced and frustrated after hitting a road block during their fourth consecutive day together at the bargaining table. The league and union looked to be moving slowly towards a deal after trading proposals earlier in the week, but ended up exchanging some heated words after discovering they were still about US$380 million apart on economics.
"We looked at some of the numbers on the various proposals and we thought we were much closer together on the structure of a deal than the suggestions were," said NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr. "They came back to us and said, 'No, we're very, very far apart on the structure of a deal.'"
There were no further bargaining sessions scheduled, but Fehr remained hopeful they would pick up talks again Saturday.
The fundamental issue they are trying to bridge is agreeing to a system where the players' overall share in revenue can be drastically reduced while ensuring all existing contracts are honoured. The league's most recent offer would see players receive US$211-million guaranteed in deferred "make-whole" payments—not nearly enough to satisfy the union.
"If the notion is that they are honouring all of the contracts and everybody's going to get paid everything they were supposed to be paid according to the letter of the contracts, it's of course not true and never has been," said Fehr. "I don't quite know where that notion came from."
A week that started with the sides agreeing to meet at an undisclosed location and refrain from making public comments didn't end quite as quietly. Sources indicated that the league was also frustrated with the lack of progress, although Bettman remained even-keeled during a short session with reporters.
Now presiding over the third lockout of his tenure, he refused to characterize the status of negotiations.
"I don't want to either raise or lower expectations," said Bettman. "I won't be happy until we get to the end result and that means we're playing again."
Beneath the surface, there is plenty of tension to be found.
Fehr found himself defending his leadership after a memo he sent to players was leaked to reporters and a report later surfaced that the league didn't believe he was doing an adequate job of informing his constituents about exactly what was being proposed.
Flanked by a handful of players who attended Friday's bargaining session, he pointed out that only the four owners on the NHL's bargaining committee have attended meetings.
"Owners can't come to meetings when they want to to hear stuff directly but every single player can at the union's expense," said Fehr. "He can come and hear for himself, make the judgments, and all the rest of it."
It wasn't a good day for those who are hoping to see the NHL begin a shortened season soon.
There had been some hope that talks were progressing, especially with the sides locked in their longest run of negotiations since CBA talks began more than four months ago. Bettman did note that it's always "better to be together and talk" before slipping in a proviso: "When there's something to talk about."
In addition to their disagreement on the "make whole" provision, the sides are still grappling with proposed changes to rules governing contracts. The league hasn't backed off any of the demands made in its Oct. 18 proposal, according to sources, and the union continues to believe it shouldn't have to make concessions in those areas because it has committed to seeing the players' share in revenue decreased.
The NHL and NHLPA are attempting to strike a deal that would end the 55-day lockout, which has already forced the cancellation of 327 regular-season games and delivered considerable damage to the league's business.
There seems to be some commitment to continuing talks. It's possible that the negotiations will run through the weekend and force Bettman and Fehr to miss the Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Toronto. However, that will only happen if the sides can start playing a little nicer—and making a little progress.
"(We're prepared to do) whatever it takes," said Bettman. "We're available and, as I said, we're waiting to hear back from the players' association in terms of when they'll be ready."
That answer wasn't readily available after a rough day of negotiations.
"I don't know what will happen next," said Fehr.