It took until the 81st day of the NHL lockout, but for the first time since the stoppage began in mid-September there is genuine optimism that the two sides are moving toward a new collective bargaining agreement and the start of a 2012-13 season.
On Wednesday morning, the NHL’s Board of Governors met in New York and received an update on the progress made in a marathon session Tuesday that didn’t include either Commissioner Gary Bettman or NHL Players Association Executive Director Donald Fehr. The brief reactions afterward from league executives, who are not permitted to speak publicly about lockout negotiations, offered additional encouragement that the mood between the two sides is beginning to warm up.
“We’re going to continue to talk up until we get a deal,” Toronto Maple Leafs owner Larry Tanenbaum told reporters in New York. “As long as we’re talking, we’re hopeful.”
Said Columbus Blue Jackets President John Davidson: “We feel good about the information we got.”
Washington Capitals President Dick Patrick and General Manager George McPhee attended the Board of Governors meeting Wednesday. Owner Ted Leonsis, who is part of the NHL’s four-man negotiating committee, was not present.
Bettman didn’t disclose anything about the state of negotiations when he met with reporters. The lack of detail shared by either side, though, is considered a positive sign.
“We are pleased with the process that is ongoing, and out of respect for that process, I don’t have anything else to say,” Bettman said.
The sudden surge of momentum in talks occurred during a nearly eight-hour meeting between six owners and 18 players in New York on Tuesday without Bettman or Fehr present. According to multiple reports, Pittsburgh co-owner Ron Burkle and star center Sidney Crosby, who both took part in the session, worked to build trust and bridge the gap between the sides.
At the conclusion of Tuesday’s discussions, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly and NHLPA special counsel Steve Fehr stood side by side as they delivered short statements that featured a more congenial tone by both sides.
“I thought it was a constructive day; we had a good dialogue. In some ways, I’d say it might be the best day we’ve had,” said Steve Fehr, who tempered expectations and stressed that there was still work to do.
“I appreciate the efforts of the players in particular,” Daly said. “I think everyone wants to get a deal done, so I think that’s encouraging.”
The group reconvened Wednesday afternoon, once again without Bettman or Donald Fehr, but both men are expected to take part in discussions before any agreement is reached. The players submitted a new proposal at the session and received a counteroffer from the owners, but there were few details available about the offers as talks continued late into the evening.
The reaction to any fresh proposal will be crucial in determining whether the NHL can potentially salvage a 50-plus game schedule for the 2012-13 season.
At this stage in the labor dispute, both the league and players’ union have proposed a 50-50 split of hockey-related revenues, but they have yet to find common ground on how to make the transition from a system in which the player previously received a 57 percent share. They also remain divided on player contract issues such as term limits, free agency eligibility and arbitration rights.
Will the details derail the process once again? Only time will tell.
“I’ve always been hopeful there’s going to be a season until there isn’t, but right now, we just have to leave it in the hands of the people that are talking,” New Jersey Devils General Manager Lou Lamoriello told reporters Wednesday. “They’re talking, and that’s the most important thing.”