Hope of saving a full or almost full NHL season built Tuesday evening as the first bargaining session between the owners and players since Oct. 18 lasted seven hours and 15 minutes, probably the longest stretch in the sporadic negotiations that marked the league's latest lockout.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, deputy commissioner Bill Daly and several owners met with NHL Players' Association executive director Donald Fehr, NHLPA special counsel Steve Fehr and a group of players including superstar Sidney Crosby at a secret location in New York. It is hoped a pitch by the owners to shoulder at least some of the responsibility for paying existing player contracts in full despite a cut in their share of league revenue from 57 per cent to 50 will be enough to prod the two sides into an agreement.
Neither side would comment after the meeting but issued word they will meet again Wednesday. Louis Jean, a broadcaster with the Quebec-based network TVA, said Tuesday night a source told him the session was "going well" and the discussions were "positive."
Shortly before Tuesday's meeting, which started at 3 p.m., Donald Fehr said he was hopeful what people on both sides regard as the last chance to save an 82-game season would be fruitful. However, Fehr also warned there were more issues at stake than the "make-whole provision" in the owners' last offer.
Settling how player contracts will be paid in full or almost in full will not "end the matter," Fehr said. "There are still other things that are important, but it certainly would matter in and of itself."
There a flurry of media activity early Tuesday evening when it appeared the session ended after just a few hours. A rather bland statement from Daly was released signalling the end of the meeting but it turned out the league released it prematurely and the meeting was still going.
As the second NHL lockout in the last seven years entered its 53rd day on Wednesday, the meeting in New York marked the first attempt to reach a new collective agreement since talks broke off Oct. 18. That session ended when the owners took 10 minutes to reject three alternative offers from the players in response to their offer of a 50-50 split in revenue that would have seen current contracts paid in full by reducing the players' shares in later years.
The players pointed out this would result in players paying players and would actually be a reduction of a 50-per-cent share. The players received 57 per cent of the NHL's hockey-related revenue (HRR) in the last agreement.
However, the owners were not interested in any of the players' suggestions, which included setting aside 13 per cent of HRR in a new agreement to make sure existing contracts were paid in full and then splitting the rest 50-50. But talks resumed Tuesday after the owners sent a message to the union they were willing to take on at least some of the responsibility for paying their contracts in full.
Much of Tuesday's meeting was thought to be spent on a full explanation from the owners about how they propose to do that.