After the “emotional frenzy” of last week – in the unusually emotive words of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman – the league and the NHL Players’ Association will once more convene Wednesday, to slog towards a possible deal, again aided by two federal U.S. mediators.
The urgency, hope and chaos of three days of talks last week, direct negotiations between players and owners, has receded to something of an icy calm.
The sides have not been closer to near-full agreement, yet the NHL still dismissively rejects the idea a deal is tangibly close at hand. Union chief Don Fehr insists the two sides are close.
The Wednesday meeting, between union representatives and some players, and Bettman and his staff, is set for an undisclosed location.
Reporters are expressly unwelcome.
Whether keeping the talks covert and away from prying glares produces any tangible progress is unclear. Whether mediation, round 2, will help is also unclear. It was a total failure two weeks ago, which propelled many to despair that the 2012-13 season was near death.
The owners made a rare concession to players, by agreeing to more mediation – after Bettman last Thursday said he had “no interest” in mediation and described it of “no value.” (The mediators are from the Washington-based Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, where Scot Beckenbaugh is deputy director and knows the NHL well, having been in ultimately failed talks in 2004-05, and again two weeks ago. Director of mediation services John Sweeney is the other mediator.)
Wednesday marks Day 88 of the lockout and with games cancelled through Dec. 30, there isn’t any particular urgency to bang out of a deal immediately.
If a season does occur, something of a consensus percolated this week that a schedule would be 48 games, and possibly 54, with pucks to drop in early January.
While the sides have settled mostly settled issues around money, the remaining questions, such as the length of the collective agreement and player contracts, are still major hurdles.
One underlying issue is that of perspective. The owners believe they have yielded great ground, even though it is the owners who have hammered the players down to 50 per cent of revenue from their previous take of 57 per cent. Last Thursday night, the owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins Ron Burkle, painted as a friend of labour, stated: “We made substantial movement on our end quickly, but unfortunately that was not met with the same level of movement from the other side.”
So, as always in negotiations, tone and perspective will be crucial.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, in an e-mail to The Canadian Press on Tuesday, said he carried “no expectations” as the sides readied to reconvene.
The players expressed a generic positive view. “It’s good they’re talking and, hopefully, something good comes out of it,” Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Tuesday.
Among management, Vancouver Canucks assistant general manager Laurence Gilman said Tuesday he was “hopeful” a deal could get done. He spoke about his desire to get players back on the ice – and also of the particular challenges of a shortened season, where injuries and the like can wreak havoc.
“I feel we are as close today as we were a season-and-a-half ago, and I feel like time is slipping away for us,” Gilman told Team 1040 radio in Vancouver.
“It’ll be a sprint for sure,” he said of a potential shortened season. “If we’re only playing a 50-game season, there’s a lot more bad things that can happen.”