TORONTO - Let the serious negotiations begin.
After more than a month with no new offers being tabled in collective bargaining talks, the NHL breathed new life into the process Tuesday with a proposal that could kick-start some significant discussions.
It calls for a 50-50 split of revenues between owners and players and includes a deferred salary plan designed to ensure that players would receive all the money they've been promised in existing contracts. On top of that, the deal was drawn up with an eye to starting a full 82-game regular season Nov. 2.
"We have about nine or 10 days to get this all ... signed, sealed and delivered," said commissioner Gary Bettman, who called the proposed deal "long-term."
A lot will need to be accomplished over that period. However, the unexpected proposal offered fans the first real hint of hope since the lockout began Sept. 15.
The sides have met regularly since that time, but their discussions were largely limited to secondary issues. The league eventually grew tired of waiting for a new offer from the NHL Players' Association and decided to try to move things forward with a proposal of its own.
Donald Fehr, the NHLPA's executive director, spent Tuesday afternoon reviewing the lengthy document and held an evening conference call with about 60 players. His initial reaction to the offer was that it could provide something to work with.
"I would like to believe that it will be an excellent starting point and we can go forward and see if there is a deal to be made," said Fehr.
The new offer was greeted with cautious optimism by locked-out players who have had to secure their own ice time to stay in shape during the lockout. Following an informal skate in Vancouver on Tuesday, Canucks goaltender Cory Schneider expressed hope that labour peace could finally be on the horizon.
"Both sides were waiting for somebody to make the next move," said Schneider. "For them to make a move towards us, it at least signals that they are serious about negotiating and getting started. Up until this point, we weren't fully convinced of that. This is obviously a good step towards that."
It wasn't immediately clear how willing the league is to negotiate off its latest offer. The NHL's previous proposal called for the players' revenue share to fall to 47 per cent and tabled a number of restrictive rules governing contracts.
According to a source, the only one that remains in Tuesday's proposal is a maximum contract length of five years. The new offer also calls for unrestricted free agency to come into effect at age 28 or after eight years of service — one year later than the last CBA — and keeps entry-level deals at three years.
Neither side had made a formal proposal since Sept. 12, and this one came with a heightened sense of urgency from Bettman. The league figures Nov. 2 is the latest it could start a condensed 82-game regular season that would see the Stanley Cup awarded before the end of June.
"If we didn't do it now, if we didn't put an offer on the table that we thought was fair and could get us playing hockey ... then it probably wasn't going to happen for a while," said Bettman. "It's done in the spirit of getting a full season in."
If the union were to accept the 50-50 split, players would take a financial hit. Based on last year's league-wide revenues of US$3.3 billion, they would be giving up $231 million annually if their share of that money drops by seven per cent.
However, it might be a concession they're willing to make as part of a larger deal.
"To Bettman, the percentage is the biggest part," said Schneider. "To us, it's one of the few big parts. Contracting and revenue-sharing are other issues for us. But (the percentage) is a hurdle that has to be overcome at some point. So it's good that we're heading in the right direction."
The NHL's third lockout in 18 years has lasted 31 days and already forced the league to push the season back two weeks from its scheduled start of Oct. 11. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly estimated last week that it had cost about US$250 million in lost revenue.
The new league offer came one day after the sports blog Deadspin reported the NHL had hired market research firm Luntz Global to conduct a focus group to help shape its message during the lockout. The company's founder, Frank Luntz, said in a statement that he was trying to gauge how fans felt about the work stoppage.
The best public relations for both sides would come from striking a deal and with a new proposal on the table, there is some optimism that could be coming sooner than later.
"What our hope is is that after we review this that there will be a feeling on the players' side that this is a proposal from which we can negotiate and try and reach a conclusion," said Fehr.
— With files from Monte Stewart in Vancouver.