TORONTO - The NHL's collective bargaining talks are set to resume after a two-week hiatus and all of the issues are open for discussion.
Not only did the league and NHL Players' Association schedule a meeting for Friday in New York, but they also agreed to reopen negotiations on matters unrelated to the economic system that governs the sport.
It's a departure in approach from the weeks leading into the lockout, when the sides focused solely on core economics. They were about $1 billion apart after each tabling offers during the last bargaining session on Sept. 12, and a new plan of attack was developed by deputy commissioner Bill Daly and Steve Fehr, the NHLPA's special counsel, during a face-to-face meeting in Toronto on Tuesday morning.
"We agreed on an agenda that made sense and might produce some forward progress," Daly told The Canadian Press.
The lockout has already forced the cancellation of September's pre-season games and it's expected that the remainder of the exhibition schedule could officially be wiped out as soon as Wednesday. After that, regular season games will be next on the chopping block.
Despite stalled negotiations, Daly said earlier this week that the process was "light years" ahead of where it was at this point in 2004. The decision to return to the bargaining table is evidence of that. Eight years ago, the sides let three months pass after the lockout was enacted before resuming talks.
"We are pleased the league is willing to come back to the bargaining table and we look forward to Friday's discussions," Fehr said.
While a significant economic gulf remains this time around, at least one veteran negotiator believes it's a good sign the NHL and NHLPA are willing to discuss issues such as pensions, grievance procedures and travel in the meantime.
"It means that once they settle the economic issues they want to start playing right away," said the negotiator, who requested anonymity.
Additional reminders of the damage inflicted by the lockout continue to surface with each passing day. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Tuesday that the Blues had laid off just under 20 employees and forced their remaining staff to take pay cuts or a reduced work week.
Starting next week, NHL employees will all be operating on a four-day work week — and earning 20 per cent less salary as a result.
Meantime, the flood of locked-out players to Europe continues, with Vezina Trophy finalist Pekka Rinne signing on with Dinamo Minsk in the KHL Tuesday and Tuuka Rask (HC Plzen), Mikhail Grabovski (CSKA Moscow), Alex Steen (Modo), Douglas Murray (Djurgarden) and Alex Semin (Sokol Krasnoyarsk) joining new teams as well.
The NHL is currently engaged in its fourth work stoppage in the last 20 years. Since the lockout started at midnight on Sept. 15, a handful of players have expressed concern that it could last the entire season, with Detroit Red Wings forward Danny Cleary telling reporters Monday that he was "just trying to be realistic."
However, there are signs that sides continue to have a decent working relationship. Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr chatted during an alumni dinner in Toronto on Monday night and their lieutenants oversaw a five-hour review of last season's economics earlier that day.
After that session, Daly called it "constructive" and noted that the parties were able to agree on the escrow payments due to players much sooner than a year ago.
When the questions turned to CBA negotiations, he talked about the importance of getting back to the bargaining table and indicated the league was looking to the union to take a step forward with an improved offer. He also made it clear the NHLPA was already aware of the NHL's stance.
"They know where we are, where our head's at in the process," Daly said. "We'll work through it."