After arriving at another dead end in negotiations, the NHL and NHL Players' Association emerged from two days of mediation with a new direction to consider.
Commissioner Gary Bettman proposed Thursday that the leadership from both sides step aside for the next bargaining session, leaving a group of owners and players to try and break the stalemate. The specific parameters of the meeting weren't set out and the NHLPA said it would take the offer to its executive board and negotiating committee for consideration.
Bettman's proposal came with the sides unable to bridge a gap in collective bargaining negotiations despite sitting through a series of sessions with U.S. federal mediators Scot L. Beckenbaugh and John Sweeney in Woodbridge, N.J., this week.
"After spending several hours with both sides over two days, the presiding mediators concluded that the parties remained far apart, and that no progress toward a resolution could be made through further mediation at this point in time," deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Thursday in a statement. "We are disappointed that the mediation process was not successful."
Mediation was also used on a couple occasions during the NHL's labour dispute in 2004-05 and didn't produce any discernable progress. According to NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, the sides may sit down with representatives from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service again in the future.
"The mediators informed the parties that they did not think it was productive to continue the discussions further today," said Fehr. "The mediators indicated that they would stay in contact with the league and the NHLPA, and would call the parties back together when they thought the time was right."
Progress has remained elusive for the league and union despite a variety of different negotiation settings over the last several months. They've tried everything from large groups to the Big Four (Bettman, Daly, Donald Fehr and NHLPA special counsel Steve Fehr) to a private 1-on-1 session between the deputies without success.
There was a brief hint of optimism last week when the union tabled a new offer that Donald Fehr felt brought the sides within $182 million over five years.
However, a series of player contract issues remain unresolved and the terms of negotiations are bound to change the longer the lockout drags out. On Thursday evening, Daly confirmed that the league's Nov. 8 offer remained on the table.
The sides have each proposed a 50-50 split of revenues, but remain separated on payments to be made outside the system to help ease the transition from a deal that saw players receive 57 per cent. The NHL has offered $211 million in deferred compensation while the union has asked for $393 million.
With the lockout approaching its 12th week, some veteran NHLers have started drawing parallels between the current work stoppage and the one that wiped out the 2004-05 season.
"It seems bleak for having any sort of season," Hurricanes defenceman Joe Corvo told the Raleigh News&Observer. "It feels like (2004-05) again. It seems like we're getting nowhere."
With no end to the standoff in sight and players set to miss their fourth paycheque on Friday, speculation is expected to grow about the possibility of the union decertifying or disclaiming interest.
Disbanding the union would allow NHL players to challenge the lockout under antitrust laws and eliminate the need for a CBA, potentially making each of them independent contractors. The strategy was used by NFL and NBA players in recent labour disputes and has been discussed on internal NHLPA conference calls in recent weeks.
Considerable damage has been done to the NHL's business by the lockout. The league has cancelled 422 regular-season games through Dec. 14, plus the Jan. 1 Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium and Jan. 27 all-star game in Columbus.