With the possibility of another lockout beginning to loom large, the NHL took what commissioner Gary Bettman termed a "significant" and "meaningful" step in negotiations on Tuesday.
It remains to be seen whether the NHL Players' Association shares that view.
Collective bargaining talks resumed with the NHL tabling a proposal that Bettman hailed as being much stronger than the initial one put forth by the league on July 13. He didn't provide specific details, but a source told The Canadian Press that the offer would see the players' share of revenue reduced to 51.6 per cent in the first year of the deal and 50.5 per cent in the second — and wouldn't include a rollback on existing contracts.
"It was a proposal that we believe is significant and had meaningful movement," said Bettman. "It was also designed to address issues that they've raised with us and to address the proposal they last made to us in terms of structure and format."
The union is expected to provide a response when the sides meet again on Wednesday. Executive director Donald Fehr first wanted to take more time to evaluate the deal more closely.
However, the early word leaking from the players' side was that they weren't enamoured with what was put forward — and Fehr hardly sounded enthused when he met the media on Tuesday afternoon.
"It's a proposal that we intend to respond to," he said. "I'm just going to leave it at that."
The players received 57 per cent of revenues under the expiring agreement and the NHL's original proposal called for that number to be scaled back to 43 per cent. The union countered with an offer that would see it fall around 54 per cent for three years before returning to 57 per cent in the fourth.
With the NHL's latest offer, the sides appear to be creeping a little closer on what they've been referring to as the "core economic issue."
According to a source, Tuesday's proposal from the NHL called for a six-year deal — the first three delinked from hockey-related revenues and the last three coming with a 50-50 split (when factoring in a redefinition of HRR). As a result, the salary cap would climb from $58 million in 2012-13 to approximately $71 million in 2017-18, the last season of the contract.
Pressure is mounting on both sides with the CBA set to expire Sept. 15 and the league having already stated it will lock the players out if a new agreement isn't in place by then.
There's a growing feeling throughout the sport that it's an inevitability. Minnesota Wild forward Zach Parise, who signed a monster US$98-million, 13-year deal in free agency, became the latest to voice that opinion this week when he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that "Gary's pretty adamant about his third lockout of his tenure."
On Tuesday, Bettman expressed hope that the league's latest proposal would start focusing the discussion at the bargaining table.
"We need to get on the same page on the economics and we're hoping that by virtue of the proposal we made today that there will be some traction and that there will be a framework for the negotiation," he said.
The proposal was unveiled in an intimate setting, with only Fehr and union special counsel Steve Fehr in the room for the players and Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly for the league. The morning meeting lasted about 45 minutes and concluded with Fehr saying he wanted to educate his constituents of the situation.
About four hours later, the Fehr brothers returned to the NHL's head office along with players Mathieu Darche, Ron Hainsey and Douglas Murray to provide the league with some initial thoughts on the offer.
More players are due to arrive in town on Wednesday.
"As far as an NHL player is concerned, this is his contract and this is his future, and he has both the obligation and the responsibility to make the ultimate decision on it," said Donald Fehr. "Not alone, but he has to make it with the other players as a group, so it's crucially important that the players be involved at all stages."
After word of another proposal from the NHL began to spread, Darche said he received text messages from 20 to 25 interested players. The former Montreal Canadiens forward, who is currently an unrestricted free agent, said he remains "encouraged that we're talking, to be honest with you."
Optimism is difficult to find around the negotiations.
It took the union nearly a month to formally respond to the NHL's initial proposal because it requested additional financial documents and ended up seeing 76,000 pages handed over. Fehr stressed that it's crucial to make sure that every offer is fully examined before talks can move forward.
"As I indicated to some of you before, it takes some time to review and analyze proposals and to make sure you understand them and make sure you formulate appropriate response to the proposal that's made," he said. "Certainly at this stage of the negotiations you don't want to do that unless you're ready and sure that you understand it."
Time is of the essence.
The calendar will soon give way to September, a month when players would usually be gearing up for the start of training camp. Around the continent, those plans remain on hold.
Despite putting forth an offer Bettman believes should help push talks forward, the commissioner said he "won't feel better about this process until it's successfully concluded, which remains our goal."
Pressed to define a successful conclusion, Bettman responded: "A collective bargaining agreement that allows us to play hockey."