The conclave of hockey players and owners in direct talks – without NHL commissioner Gary Bettman or NHLPA head Donald Fehr in the room – is the best hope to save the season, say several sources with direct knowledge of the negotiations.
Optimism, however, varies among those involved, ranging from "I'm hopeful," to the opposite, "I'm not." The most negative view sees the season likely cancelled, whereas the most optimistic believes Tuesday's meeting could revive the stalled labour talks.
The players-owners meeting in New York, which takes place on the 80th day of the lockout, comes the day before the NHL's board of governors convene. The players-owners meeting, if positive, could stretch into Wednesday.
Tuesday's meeting, in the wake of last week's failed mediator-led sessions, is an attempt to remix the recipe. The NHL Players' Association hadn't said who would attend, but the likes of Chicago's Jonathan Toews were headed to New York. Among owners, two mainstays will be there, Jeremy Jacobs of Boston and Murray Edwards of Calgary, but are complemented by a fresh cross-section of the league, including Pittsburgh's Ron Burkle and Tampa Bay's Jeff Vinik.
The new mix of voices and perspectives may be what is needed to revive the stalled talks, one owner source told The Globe and Mail on Monday.
A second owner source, who had been previously pessimistic about the prospects for a season, felt optimistic Monday. He said the owners' ability to present "unfiltered" views could help.
"I'm hopeful," the source said. "If it's going to happen, it's going to happen this week."
A third owner source said the NHL has already offered a fair deal and that there is nothing more to cede to the players, and blamed Fehr for the impasse. The source envisions a repeat of 2004-05, the lost season. "I don't think we're playing," the source said. "That's the bottom line."
While at least several owner sources feel some optimism, there remains an entrenched chasm in points of view. The players want the owners to yield more. The owners believe they have ceded enough.
"We feel we have given up a lot," a fourth owner source told The Globe in late November just before the failed meditated talks.
On Monday, some hope did seem to percolate. The new owner names were parsed.
The presence of Larry Tanenbaum, co-owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, was noted, in part because the Leafs, who were pegged by Forbes last week as worth $1-billion, stand to lose the most by not playing.
Burkle is a friend of labour, having been previously honoured for humanitarian work by the largest union in the United States, the AFL-CIO, and being chosen man of the year by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. Vinik was saluted by his locked-out captain, Vincent Lecavalier.
"I'm happy he's going," said Lecavalier of Vinik on Sunday in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. "He's a guy who will listen and talk and have a conversation and see where things go."
Jacobs's reputation as a give-no-ground hardliner has been widely discussed, and his presence could squash new ideas from bursting forth. Still, the other mainstay owner who will be there Tuesday, Edwards, does have a relationship with players. "There's a respect factor between us players and Murray," Matt Stajan, the Flames player rep, said in mid-September.
Eliminating the intermediaries could bring together two sides that have more in common than believed, said labour-relations expert Maurice Mazerolle, who is director of the Centre for Labour Management Relations at Ryerson University and had previously worked on labour relations in construction, health care, teaching, and transportation.
"Both the owners and the players, I suspect, have a more common bond than those who represent them," Mazerolle said. "It holds some promise. Sometimes you just have to go past the people who represent you and talk directly."
Meetings such as Tuesday's – which is not considered an official bargaining session – allow for what Mazerolle called "supposals" – ideas that can be chewed over, rather than hard proposals that are either accepted or rejected.
But, in the end, with the season on the line, "changing the human element" is the bet, in terms of the people in the room.
"When you get to a stalemate – which is what we're talking about – you can take some people out of the room," said Mazerolle, referring to Fehr and Bettman, both of whom are seen as dug in, the root of the stalemate. "In their absence, perhaps it sets a different tone. Perhaps the framing of interests is somewhat different. The dialogue could be different."