The NHL's collective bargaining talks appear to be heading towards the brink.
With the process still in mediation and the sides spending another day apart, negotiations slowed to a crawl just one week from a season saving deadline that is suddenly coming in to full view.
There had been some hope a deal could be reached in time to open training camps this weekend and start a 52-game schedule the following Saturday. Now the best-case scenario appears to be 48 games, with commissioner Gary Bettman making it clear an agreement must be reached by Jan. 11 for that to happen.
The extra lost week of a shortened season and another 60 missed games across the league come at an estimated cost of roughly $130 million US in hockey-related revenue, according to a source. Or, put another way, as much as $120,000 on average per player.
The only talking the sides did on Friday was with U.S. federal mediator Scot Beckenbaugh, who walked back and forth between the league office and NHLPA's hotel several times during almost 13 hours of independent sessions. Beckenbaugh, no stranger to the process after being involved with the NHL's 2004-05 lockout, was said to be trying to help them work through the remaining issues.
The mediation was scheduled to continue on Saturday morning. It was unclear when the NHL and NHLPA might be prepared to hold another face-to-face meeting again.
That last happened on Wednesday night, when talks stretched into early Thursday morning and saw enough progress made for the NHLPA to elect not to declare a "disclaimer of interest" prior to a midnight deadline. Players have since been asked to vote on giving their executive board that power again in a ballot that wraps up at 6 p.m. ET on Saturday.
If they grant them that authority, the union could be dissolved and transformed into a trade association. That would likely be accompanied by anti-trust lawsuits from players and bring even more uncertainty to the negotiating process than already exists.
In the meantime, lawyer Shepard Goldfein — who represents the NHL — filed a memo with the district court in New York on Friday informing judge Paul Engelmayer that the sides agreed that they wouldn't need an expedited briefing schedule despite the ongoing talks.
As a result, the labour fight won't likely get very far in the courts unless the NHL and NHLPA are unable to reach a deal and another season is cancelled. However, the sides still have a conference scheduled before the judge on Monday morning.
Crosby, Letang taking different approach
There seemed to be a growing feeling among everyone involved in the process that negotiations were headed down to the wire. A few eyebrows were raised when Penguins defenceman Kris Letang travelled to Russia this week to sign on with SKA St. Petersburg, but Pittsburgh teammate Sidney Crosby said Friday he was content to wait things out before finding a place to play in Europe.
"You wait this long, trying to be optimistic, you can wait another week or however long until we know," Crosby told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "What's another week? After that, I'll have a pretty good idea of what I'm going to do.
"At this point, I'm just worried about playing here."
After more than six months of negotiations, it still remained to be seen whether the face of the sport would get that opportunity.
The sides have moved closer to one another with a series of proposals since Dec. 27, but still need to find agreement on the salary cap for next season, the length of player contracts, salary variance, the length of the CBA and pension plan, among other things.
All games through Jan. 14, along with the all-star game, have been cancelled, claiming more than 50 per cent of the original schedule.
The lockout will enter its 16th week on Sunday and many have already started asking questions about what kind of damage the sport's fourth work stoppage in 20 years has inflicted. Even though a definitive answer won't be known until a deal is eventually reached and a league coming off a record $3.3-billion in revenue resumes its operation, at least one player expressed regret about the inability of the two sides to get the game back on the ice sooner.
"For me, personally, I feel bad for [the fans] and embarrassed to be part of this whole situation," Carolina Hurricanes captain Eric Staal told the Raleigh News & Observer on Friday.
On Thursday, players began voting to restore their executive board's authority to dissolve the union, less than a day after letting a self-imposed deadline pass to declare a "disclaimer of interest."
A 48-hour period for the NHLPA's membership to cast ballots opened at 6 p.m. ET on Thursday, according to a source.
The first vote, held over five days last month, passed overwhelmingly. Should at least two-thirds of players return a positive vote again and the NHLPA decide to notify the league it is disclaiming, it would open the door for players to file antitrust lawsuits.
A good stretch of bargaining this week has produced some progress toward ending the labour dispute, including an apparent agreement between the sides to allow each team up to two compliance buyouts prior to the 2013-14 season. Those would allow teams to terminate player contracts without being penalized against the salary cap, although the buyout amounts would count against the players' overall share in revenue.
"That is quite the concession from players … proof that NHL was going to hold firm on money being 'outside the system.'" Elliotte Friedman of Hockey Night in Canada tweeted Thursday morning.
The sides had also discussed a 20 per cent yearly salary variance in contracts, an improvement from the NHL's previous demand of 10 per cent.
However, the salary cap range for the 2013-14 season — the first full one under the new CBA — remained a significant hurdle, according to sources. The union is seeking a $65-million US cap and a $44-million floor while the league has proposed an upper limit of $60 million and a lower limit of $44 million.
The sides have traded four proposals in the past week — two by each side — but none has gained enough traction. Getting an agreement on a pension plan would likely go a long way toward an agreement that would put hockey back on the ice.
Major point of contention
Fehr believed a plan for players-funded pension was established before talks blew up in early December. That apparently wasn't the case, or the NHL has changed its offer regarding the pension in exchange for agreeing to other things the union wanted.
The salary-cap number for the second year of the deal — the 2013-14 season — hasn't been agreed to, and it is another major point of contention. The league is pushing for a $60 million cap, while the union wants it to be $65 million with a floor of $44 million.
In return for the higher cap number players would be willing to forgo a cap on escrow.
Both sides seem content on the deal lasting for 10 years, but they have different opinions on whether an opt-out should be allowed to be exercised after seven years or eight.
The NHL proposed last Thursday that pension contributions come out of the players' share of revenues, and $50 million of the league's make-whole payment of $300 million will be allocated and set aside to fund potential underfunded liabilities of the plan at the end of the collective bargaining agreement.
Last month, the NHL agreed to raise its make-whole offer of deferred payments from $211 million to $300 million as part of a proposed package that required the union to agree on three nonnegotiable points. Instead, the union accepted the raise in funds, but then made counterproposals on the issues the league stated had no wiggle room.
"As you might expect, the differences between us relate to the core economic issues which don't involve the share," Fehr said of hockey-related revenue, which likely will be split 50-50.
The NHL is the only North American professional sports league to cancel a season because of a labour dispute, losing the 2004-05 campaign to a lockout. A 48-game season was played in 1995 after a lockout stretched into January.