NHL, NHLPA still need to bridge 'critical open issues'

Marathon negotiations stretched into early Thursday morning as the NHL and NHL Players' Association tried to cut a deal to end the lockout and salvage some sort of partial season.

A tension-filled day of collective bargaining ended with the NHL and NHL Players' Association still needing to bridge "critical open issues."

The sides held another marathon session Wednesday that stretched into Thursday morning and saw them exchange proposals across the bargaining table. Talks broke off just before 1 a.m. ET with the expectation that they would pick up again Thursday afternoon.

"There continue to be some critical open issues between the two parties and we understand the union should be getting back to us [Thursday] on some of those issues," said deputy commissioner Bill Daly.

The optimism coming out of eight-plus hours of meetings on Tuesday quickly met cold, hard reality once offers started being exchanged. The group of owners and players held a series of quick sessions together that were interspersed with internal meetings as each considered what was on the table.

Details began trickling out about the offers early Thursday morning, including the league's willingness to up the amount of deferred transition money paid to the players to $300 million US, which appeared to be the golden number in recent weeks as it sat directly between what had most recently been tabled by the NHL ($211 million) and NHLPA ($393 million).

However, sources indicated the league's offer of $300 million was connected to the acceptance of other issues on the table. The sides must also agree on player contract rights pertaining to free agency, arbitration and the maximum length of deals — something the NHL is pushing for to eliminate long-term, back-diving deals.

Another issue that surfaced was the league's desire to see a 10-year term on the collective bargaining agreement. The NHLPA continues to favour a shorter contract.

There was clearly tension in the air at the midtown Manhattan hotel as the league and union put on a push to close the remaining gaps in negotiations that have spanned more than five months.

"We had … a very candid discussion," said Winnipeg Jets defenceman Ron Hainsey.

At one point, Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs could be seen having an animated conversation with Daly outside the negotiating room. Players also wore pensive looks as they paced the halls and made telephone calls during breaks.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr kept themselves out of negotiation sessions for a second straight day. However, Bettman did provide a brief update to reporters after a two-hour gathering of the Board of Governors, saying he was "pleased" with how things were progressing.

That was about all he was willing to reveal.

"We are pleased with the process that is ongoing and out of respect for that process I don't have anything else to say and I'm not going to take any questions," said Bettman.

The two sides have cleared their schedules for the rest of the week after successfully getting an adjournment from Quebec Labour Board hearings that had been scheduled in Montreal for Thursday and Friday. That panel will only hear arguments about the legality of locking out members of the Canadiens if a deal can't be reached in the near future.

There was a sense that remained a possibility following the first gathering of NHL owners since the lockout was enacted in September.

"We feel good about the information we got," said Columbus Blue Jackets president John Davidson.

Toronto Maple Leafs minority owner Larry Tanenbaum is one of six owners who became involved in the talks this week.

"As long as we're talking, we're hopeful," he said.

According to sources, the owners discussed a possible season that would span 50-plus games. There had been talk of a 60-game schedule in the event of a labour settlement, but the feeling among the group was that it would be too ambitious at this stage.

Progress appeared to be made during more than eight hours of meetings on Tuesday that ended with NHLPA special counsel Steve Fehr describing it as the best day yet in talks. It was difficult to carry that momentum through a second long day, especially with the league and union trading specific proposals and looking for compromise.

The NHL's third lockout in the last 20 years has already resulted in the cancellation of 422 regular-season games through Dec. 14, plus the Winter Classic and all-star game. It remains the only North American pro sports league to lose an entire year to a work stoppage after having the 2004-05 season wiped out.