NEW YORK – There is hope for the hockey season.
Because even though negotiations almost blew up Wednesday night, the moderates still held them together. Because even though the clock struck midnight and the lockout reached its 82nd day, the NHL and the NHL Players' Association still kept talking in the city that never sleeps. Because even though they didn't get there and the situation remains fragile, they still crept closer.
A deal is in sight.
A month ago, a week ago, talks might have broken off had Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller lost his temper, had Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs threatened to leave, the way they reportedly did here. But now there are people pushing for a deal on both sides, headlined by Pittsburgh Penguins owner Ron Burkle and captain Sidney Crosby, with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Don Fehr not directly involved. There has been significant movement – just not enough yet.
The NHL proposed more make-whole/transition money, to ease the players' drop from 57 percent of hockey-related revenue to 50. The league is now reportedly at $300 million – about the midpoint between its previous proposal ($211 million) and the union's ($393 million).
The league bent on some contracting rights, keeping arbitration and free-agency eligibility the same. But the league reportedly continued to insist that contracts not vary by more than five percent from year to year, to stop back-diving, cap-circumventing deals, instead of adopting a union proposal that would recapture a team's salary cap advantage if a player retired before his contract ran out. The league continued to insist on a five-year contract limit, while allowing teams to re-sign their own players for seven years.
The league also reportedly proposed a 10-year collective bargaining agreement, with an opt-out after eight years. The players had been proposing a five-year deal.
"There continue to be some critical open issues between the two parties," deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in a brief update, "and we understand the union should be getting back to us tomorrow (Thursday) on some of those issues."
About all Winnipeg Jets defenseman Ron Hainsey would say was that the sides had "very candid discussion" and would keep at it.
They've got to get a deal done. It would be ridiculous for them not to now – more ridiculous than it would have been already, anyway. The union was touting a difference of $182 million. That has been cut in half. The league still wants to take some of the players' contracting rights, but not as many as before. The league wants a deal as long as 10 years, and that locks up the players' concessions for as much as a decade, but when no one wants another lockout anytime soon, a decade of labor peace sounds pretty good.
That doesn't mean they're going to get a deal done immediately, though, or that this is going to be easy. Get Bettman and Fehr out of the room? Lock up the owners and players until they compromise? Well, they got Bettman and Fehr out of the room, and they met for hours and hours, and they made progress because of it. But it isn't that simple.
Bettman and Fehr are no longer across the table from each other, but they're still in the building, still very much involved, still directing their troops each time they come back to caucus. For all the heart-to-heart idealism, there is still plenty of cold-blooded strategy in the equation. And if Fehr and Bettman return to the room, things could bog down again.
There was a positive vibe after Tuesday's meetings, and there was a positive vibe after the NHL's board of governors met Wednesday at Proskauer Rose, the league's law firm. The board discussed a possible schedule of 50-60 games.
"We're going to continue to talk up until we get a deal," said the Toronto Maple Leafs' Larry Tanenbaum, one of six owners involved in talks with a group of players. "That's all I'm going to say."
Asked if there was more clarity on where the sides stood, he said: "Absolutely."
But remember: Tuesday's talks were about the big picture. Wednesday's talks were about the specifics, and the devil is always in the details. Fehr warned the players to temper their optimism. The league would love the players to get caught up in the momentum, but Fehr is smart enough to slow them down. They don't want to rush this to play in the short term and make a mistake for the long term. They were expected to hold a conference call Thursday before resuming talks.
They've got to get a deal done. We should have a season. But there is more haggling to be done first, and it's too early to speculate when that season will start or how long it will be, let alone when Roberto Luongo will be traded and who will be best positioned for the sprint to the playoffs.
It was 1:30 a.m. ET when some NHL executives left the Manhattan hotel where the meetings were held. As one of them said, it wasn't late. It was early.
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