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Sidney Crosby (right) leaves a press conference following collective bargaining talks in Toronto on Thursday October 18, 2012. Negotiations continue between the NHL and the NHLPA to end the current lockout . (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Sidney Crosby (right) leaves a press conference following collective bargaining talks in Toronto on Thursday October 18, 2012. Negotiations continue between the NHL and the NHLPA to end the current lockout . (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The Lockout

Breakthrough could mean beginning of the end in NHL labour dispute Add to ...

The NHL and the NHL Players’ Association – with the 2012-13 season on the line – plan to talk by phone Saturday and meet Sunday in New York to discuss the latest proposal from the league, an offer that may push the dispute to a resolution after negotiations had completely stalled before Christmas.

The NHL offer follows the last significant development, the players voting overwhelmingly a week ago to give union leaders the power to decertify the NHLPA. Last year, the same tactic helped hasten a resolution to labour fights in football and basketball.

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Details of the NHL offer, which was made on Thursday night by the NHL on Day 103 of the lockout, were first reported on Friday morning by ESPN and while the NHL gave up a bit of ground, it mostly stood firm. The document, running some 300 pages, was comprehensive and put forth Jan. 19 as the last date a 48-game season could begin, which would require training camp by Jan. 12, so a deal would need to be fully completed within two weeks.

The key element is the addition of an effective deadline, said one owner on Friday afternoon. He said he believed about three-quarters of players would vote in favour of playing a season. However, numerous owners are skeptical about union leader Don Fehr and the group hopes the deadline puts pressure on Fehr.

Players don’t feel the league gave up much ground – but it was enough to get talks restarted, said one person who was on a conference call of the union executive and the players’ bargaining committee Friday afternoon.

Beyond the contract, there was also a report that the woeful Columbus Blue Jackets would move to the Eastern Conference and the Winnipeg Jets to the West for 2012-13, a prelude to broader realignment of the league’s franchises, a process that failed last year.

The core of the “new” NHL proposal yields no ground on key issues. The revenue split is put at 50-50, and the deal is proposed to stretch 10 years. The league’s “make whole” offer to honour current contracts is also unchanged at $300-million, with $50-million of that being paid into a proposed pension plan that the players would finance. Players had previously not been impressed that a large chunk of the “make whole” money would be paid out years from now.

One area in which the league yielded slightly was on the length of player contracts. The NHL let go of its insistence on five-year contract maximums, going to six in general, or seven if a player is re-signed by his own team. The variance on pay through the contract on such deals was increased to 10 per cent, from 5 per cent – but the effect of eliminating contracts such as those signed last summer by Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, 13 years for $98-million. The players get paid $12-million in each of the next two seasons – $10-million a year in signing bonuses already paid whether there is hockey or not – but take just $1-million a season in the last two years of their deals – a type of contract structure that infuriated many owners who believe it is a massive salary-cap loophole.

Another small concession was the NHL allowing teams to make one “compliance buy-out” – a kind-of complement to the “make whole” idea. Teams could pay money to one player’s contract, which would not count against the club’s salary cap, but would count league-wide against the share of money paid to players.

The cut in the salary cap remains large. The owners started the negotiations in July with a proposal of 43 per cent of revenue for players, down from the previous 57 per cent. By mid-October the league had moved to 50 per cent but owners at the time privately said they would not budge further and have not done so since. The maximum effective cap in a possibly saved 2012-13 season would be $70.2-million – and $60-million in 2013-14. Sixteen teams – more than half the league – have cap payrolls of $61-million or more in 2012-13, according to capgeek.com.

On revenue sharing, an idea some players have pushed as central to an improved NHL, the league is putting $200-million on the table, a purported increase from $150-million, but the NHL’s offer in October to save an 82-game season included $200-million of revenue sharing. The new NHL offer includes the creation of several committees with owners and players, including one to oversee the revenue-sharing system.

Given the heft of the offer, many smaller issues that were noted as details emerged Friday. In player “working conditions,” there was a general point in the summary about how much ice time and mandatory days off during training camps. Other items such as programs to “ensure optimal ice conditions” in buildings around the league were noted. In player health and safety, the creation of electronic medical records was put forth. In performance-enhancing substances, the list of what’s banned would be expanded “to include illegal stimulants.”

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