Where do we go from here?
As the NHL and NHL Players' Association resume collective bargaining talks, that is the question they're both seeking to answer.
The sides stepped away from negotiations last week with competing bids on the table and no clear road ahead. They spoke again over the weekend and agreed to devote sessions Wednesday and Thursday entirely to core economic issues — the area where the parties seem to have the most ground to make up.
"We are hoping that our meetings this week can serve as a jumping off point for further discussion and negotiation over the critical economic and system issues that we need to resolve in order to reach an agreement," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Tuesday in an email.
Essentially, it's time to see how much each side is willing to move off its current position, if at all.
While a significant gap exists between the two proposals when it comes to the amount of money available to players, there is some common ground. The union's decision to keep a hard salary cap in place was an important step in the process and its willingness to accept less than 57 per cent of revenues — for three years, anyway — seemed to indicate it was trying to work with the NHL.
"We thought it was a compromise," NHLPA head Donald Fehr told reporters last week.
Even though NHL commissioner Gary Bettman offered a cold public response to the union's "alternate view" — as Fehr termed the proposal — it was clearly a step in the right direction. Are the players willing to go even further? How far will the league move off its proposal, which called for new contract restrictions and player salaries based on 43 per cent of revenue?
The sides are operating in the shadow of the Sept. 15 deadline, when the current CBA is set to expire and the NHL has said players will be locked out.
Talks are tentatively scheduled for the next two weeks in New York so there is plenty of room for continued dialogue if the parties can start getting on the same page in the coming days.
Beyond the monetary issue at the heart of talks, each side has prioritized a secondary cause.
The NHLPA has made it clear that it would like to see an increase in revenue sharing and proposed the creation of an industry growth fund that would see $100 million US contributed each year for struggling teams. It would be part of a wider plan totalling $250 million in annual redistributed funds and Bettman would be given the chance to decide how the money from the industry growth fund is spread around.
"The idea was to come up with specific team-by-team plans to stabilize this industry and put the difficulties behind us," said Fehr.
The NHL is largely happy with the current economic system, but has made no secret of the fact it would like to see the end to heavily front-loaded, long-term contacts. As part of its proposal, deals would be capped at five years and would be required to pay the same amount each season.
So far, the NHLPA has said players would like rules governing contracts to remain the same.
However, it's reasonable to assume that the secondary issues could be taken care of once there's some movement on the primary one. The tone of this week's talks should offer a good indication of whether that will happen in time for a deal to be completed before Sept. 15.
"Hopefully we'll find a way during that process to achieve more common ground than we have so far," said Fehr.