The most promising effort to salvage the 2012-13 hockey season broke down in dramatic fashion Thursday night as both sides offered starkly different descriptions of what led to the failure.
Donald Fehr, the executive director of the NHL Players' Association, said that the league had rejected what he described as a comprehensive proposal containing significant concessions from their side.
"It comes as a disappointment, obviously," Fehr said. "We are clearly very close, if not on top of each other, on most of the major issues." But, "it looks like this is not going to be resolved in the immediate future."
Fehr spoke surrounded by a group of 14 players, including Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who have spent much of the past three days in on-and-off talks with owners.
Shortly afterward, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, visibly upset, addressed the media. He rejected the notion that the sides were anywhere close to an agreement.
"I am disappointed beyond belief that we are where we are tonight," he said. "We're going to have to take a deep breath and regroup."
It's unclear when negotiations will resume, but the clock is ticking to rescue what remains of the season.
"When we get to the point when we can't play a season with integrity... then we'll be done," Bettman said.
He suggested it wouldn't make sense to put together a season of fewer than 48 games – the number played in the truncated season in 1994.
Bettman said that all offers made in the week's negotiations were now off the table.
Discussions had begun promisingly, Bettman said, with direct talks among owners and players.
The owners' group included four new to the bargaining process who are considered moderate voices: Ron Burkle of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Larry Tanenbaum of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Jeff Vinik of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Mark Chipman of the Winnipeg Jets.
Soon after the talks broke down, the NHL issued statements from each of the four individual owners whose presence at this week's meetings got the negotiating ball rolling again.
Tanenbaum, the chairman of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment Ltd., and governor of the league's most valuable franchise, had joined the discussion in part to give a voice to the league's big-market teams. Privately, some players believed that the league's agenda was being driven by the 10 or 12 small-market teams, losing money under the last collective agreement.
Tanenbaum said he was initially optimistic after the first day of negotiations and conveyed that sense to the NHL's board of governors during Wednesday's meeting.
"However, when we reconvened with the players on Wednesday afternoon, it was like someone had thrown a switch," Tanenbaum said. "The atmosphere had completely changed. Nevertheless, the owners tried to push forward and made a number of concessions and proposals, which were not well-received."
Tanenbaum went on to say he questioned "whether the union is interested in making an agreement" and concluded: "Had I not experienced this process myself, I might not have believed it."
Bettman said that the group of owners wanted to "do something bold" to move toward a deal. So they sweetened the league's offer on the so-called "make-whole" payments to ease the switch to a new revenue-sharing scheme. Bettman said the owners offered approximately $100-million ( U.S.) in new payments, putting the total at $300-million, roughly the midpoint between the two sides' original offers.
In exchange, Bettman said, the owners expected the players to make concessions in three key areas – the length of the new agreement, transition issues related to the new system, and term limits on player contracts.
The last item, in particular, is "the hill we die on," said Bill Daly, deputy NHL commissioner. "For the union to say we're close is cherry-picking."
The league wants players to agree to a 10-year pact. The players, meanwhile, offered an eight-year time frame with the ability to opt out and renegotiate after six years.
Each side acknowledged, if quietly, that concessions had been made by the other side. But it appeared they could not find a way to bridge their differences, even with the current hockey season hanging in the balance.
Fehr said he felt the two sides had been closing in on a deal and had reached a complete agreement where monetary amounts were concerned. "The players have gone a very, very long way," he added.
Players echoed that sentiment. "It's a pretty disappointing day when you come to them with concessions in areas we haven't [found it] easy to make," and in response, the proposal is rejected, said Chris Campoli, a free agent who formerly played for the Montreal Canadiens.
The collapse of talks on Thursday stands in contrast to the positive vibe that prevailed on Tuesday and throughout much of Wednesday. On Thursday, the players spent the morning and afternoon in internal deliberations before a brief meeting with the NHL side.
The owners who took part in the process also said they were disheartened. "I believe a deal was within reach," said Burkle, the man who signed Crosby to a contract extension worth over $100-million this summer.
Burkle said he was surprised by what he said was a unilateral decision to move beyond the player-owner format of negotiations that had worked well – in other words, to put Fehr back into the mix.
With a report from Eric Duhatschek