The labour talks ground slowly forward Tuesday, as both the NHL and the NHL Players' Association worked in small groups clarifying the union's response the previous day to an offer the owners made last week.
Both sides expect a formal bargaining session with the full negotiation teams to begin around 9:00 p.m. at the NHL's headquarters.
For the first time, it appears there is at least a chance of real progress in the NHL lockout.
The optimism started after Monday's three-hour meeting, which was mostly taken up by internal sessions after the NHLPA presented its counter-offer. It sprang simply from the fact there was no angry rhetoric from either side at the end of the day, although another hopeful sign was that this time both sides were not leaking any details of the union's response to the media.
Both NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr were careful not to characterize the state of the talks on Monday night.
"I think it would be premature for me to characterize it and not particularly helpful to the process," Bettman said.
This was the best that could have been hoped for from the first face-to-face bargaining session between the union and the league since Dec. 13, when a U.S. federal mediating team threw up its hands along with both sides.
"We expect to hear from them in the morning but I don't know when that will be or what exact time we'll get together or what they'll say," Fehr said.
Another sign some common ground may have been reached was the size of the document the union gave to the NHL. It was about 26 pages long, far shorter than the NHL's 288-page offer. This could indicate the players did not have big problems with at least some of what the NHL was proposing and zeroed in on the contentious issues. But Fehr downplayed that notion.
"We covered the range of subjects they covered," he said. "Their document included a very long list of contract language as opposed to bullet-point items.
"We have not attempted to do that. I don't even want to attempt to do that until we know what we're trying to agree on."
Time is getting tight on the latest bid to end the lockout and save a partial hockey season. The league made it clear in its offer it is willing to play a 48-game season but it has to start by Jan. 19, which leaves about seven to 10 days for a new collective agreement to be reached.
"What we've said is we need to drop the puck by Jan. 19 if we're going to play a 48-game season," said Bettman. "We don't think it makes sense to play a season that is any shorter than that."
There is also a Wednesday deadline for the NHLPA's executive committee to act on a "disclaimer of interest" granted through a vote by the players. This gives the committee the right to dissolve the union, which clears the way for an anti-trust suit against the owners and could end the lockout. Donald Fehr would not say which way the union is headed on that count, which is not surprising.
"The players retain all the legal options they always had," he said. "Those things are internal matters we don't discuss."
The key issues for the players are the drop in the salary cap in 2013-14, the first full season since the lockout began, and what they will lose in salary through escrow. In their latest offer, the owners called for a pro-rated $70-million (all currency U.S.) cap for whatever length this season is, with the cap dropping to $60-million in 2013-14. Both sides have already agreed to a 50-50 share of league revenue and the $60-million cap is based on the $3.3-billion in revenue the NHL earned in 2011-12, albeit split 50-50 with the players.
However, the players want a gradual drop to a cap based on a 50-50 split while the owners want it in 2013-14. The players also want the owners to guarantee a minimum escrow hit on their pay cheques.
It is thought the players asked for a $67-million salary cap in 2013-14, which is based on their 57-per-cent share of the 2011-12 revenue, and for a cap on their escrow payments. The owners have thus far refused to consider a cap on escrow.
Sources with ties to the players have said if the owners are willing to accept a $67-million cap in 2013-14, the players would be willing to sign a new agreement for 10 years, which was demanded by the owners.
Another major issue was salary variance. The owners originally wanted no more than 5-per-cent variance in a player's salary from year to year but raised that to 10 per cent in last week's offer. Sources close to the players suggested this could be acceptable to them.