NEW YORK, – The NHL and NHL Players’ Association didn’t just return to the bargaining table on Tuesday. They stayed there for a good long time.
Talks restarted at an undisclosed location midway through the afternoon and were still ongoing more than five hours later, according to sources.
It was a potentially encouraging sign with the negotiations at a critical juncture and the sides expected to hold another session on Wednesday. The NHL requested that the meetings be held in a private setting because it thought it increased the odds that progress could be made.
Donald Fehr, the NHLPA’s executive director, met reporters about 90 minutes before talks resumed and expressed a desire to see the parties start closing in on an agreement to end the lockout.
“We’re hopeful that we’ll start bargaining and we’ll continue bargaining until we find a way to make a deal,” he said.
The sides hadn’t held a formal meeting since Oct. 18 in Toronto, when the NHL took about 10 minutes to dismiss three proposals put forward by the union.
Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby was among the players who attended that meeting and he also flew to New York on Tuesday after making a “last minute” decision to sit in on this one. There was a total of 13 NHLPA members in attendance along with a handful of team owners.
After months of trading shots in the media and posturing for the public, a quiet descended on the hockey world. It spoke volumes about negotiations that finally seemed to have turned serious.
“It’s very good to be getting back to the table,” said Fehr. “We hope that this time it produces more progress that we’ve seen in the past and we can figure out a way to make an agreement and to get the game back on the ice as soon as possible.”
The session came just days after deputy commissioner Bill Daly and NHLPA special counsel Steve Fehr held an informal meeting that spanned several hours at another secret location. It was viewed as a “productive” session, according to Donald Fehr, and helped set the table for formal talks to resume.
“Sometimes you’ve got to get together in a forum and figure out logistically how to go forward,” he said.
The biggest issue the sides have to bridge a gap on is the mechanism that would see all existing contracts honoured in full, even after the players’ overall share in revenue is reduced to 50 per cent from its current position of 57 per cent. A “make whole” provision in the NHL’s Oct. 16 offer attempted to do that, but the NHLPA didn’t like that deferred payments would count against the earning potential of future players.
The league has since indicated a willingness to see owners assume more of the liability.
In exchange, the NHL has asked for changes that would see all deals capped at five years, entry-level contracts that last two years instead of three and unrestricted free agency beginning at age 28 or after eight years of service, among other things. None of those held much appeal for the union.
The 52-day NHL lockout has already prompted the league to cancel 327 regular-season games, including the Jan. 1 Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium.
While the latest round of negotiations began with a hint of optimism in the air, Fehr was careful not to offer any predictions about how they might go.
“I’m not going to comment on signs, I’m not going to prognosticate, I’m not going to predict,” he said. “It’s not something which in my experience is a productive thing to do. We’ll just wait.”