TORONTO - Optimism was short-lived around the NHL's collective bargaining talks.
A flickering sense of hope was quickly replaced by frustration on Thursday after the NHL Players' Association tabled three counter-proposals and had them summarily dismissed by the league.
With time dwindling for the sides to strike a deal that would save an 82-game season, the status of negotiations was left up in the air. Commissioner Gary Bettman described the session as "thoroughly disappointing" and promptly boarded a flight back to New York along with deputy commissioner Bill Daly.
They had been hoping for progress after the league offered a 50-50 split of revenues on Tuesday as part of a deal that could see a full season start on Nov. 2.
"None of the three variations of player share that they gave us even began to approach (a) 50-50 (revenue split), either at all or for some long period of time," Bettman said. "It's clear we're not speaking the same language."
NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr disagreed, saying two of the proposals would see the players take a fixed amount of revenue, which would turn into an approximate 50-50 split over a five-year term of the deal provided league revenues continued to grow.
The third approach would be a 50-50 split, as long as the league honoured all existing contracts at full value — a claim Daly later refuted in a press release. "It is not a 50-50 deal," he said.
The NHLPA produced another show of force along with its latest offers, with star players Sidney Crosby, Jarome Iginla, Jonathan Toews and Eric Staal among the 18 union members in attendance. Like the leaders of the two sides, the players did not seem optimistic after the afternoon meeting.
"You come with three proposals thinking you've got a chance to get a little momentum and get some progress and it's shut down within 10 minutes," said Crosby. "It's not even given a day to think about or crunch numbers, it's shut down within minutes.
"That doesn't seem like a group that's willing to negotiate."
The union's proposals didn't address any of the player contracting issues that were included in the most recent NHL offer. It left the sides with a wide gap to bridge and very little time to do it. Bettman indicated they would need to have an agreement in place by Oct. 25 for the puck to be dropped the following week.
For those searching for hope, it can be found in the fact that the union's offers demonstrated the players are willing to go to a 50-50 split over the course of the next CBA.
"That's significant," said Crosby.
Bettman described the league's most recent offer, which would see the players' share in revenue reduced seven per cent immediately, as its best one. He also called it fair.
But Fehr said the players could sacrifice nearly $1.8 billion dollars in revenue under that proposal. It is particularly tough to take, according to the NHLPA boss, because he calculates the concessions made by players in the last round of bargaining at $3.3 billion.
The union is hoping to see the revenue split reduced over time to ensure that all current deals are honoured in full. He was discouraged by the league's response to the NHLPA proposals.
"This is not a good day," said Fehr. "It should have been, but it's not."
There is a clear level of distrust between sides that are currently locked in their fourth labour dispute in two decades.
On Thursday, Fehr once again reminded reporters of the sacrifices made by players during the lockout that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season and veteran Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan openly questioned whether the NHL had any interest in striking a fair deal.
"When people ask for money, they usually say `Give me your money or I'm going to hurt you,"' said Doan. "They don't say `Give me your money and I'm going to hurt you.'
"That's kind of the point we joke about, but that's where we're at."
The sides are unlikely to meet again before next week, according to a source. The league will soon be faced with the reality of having to cancel more games — including the Jan. 1 Winter Classic, which Bettman said the date for making a decision about is "rapidly approaching."
He hasn't yet ruled out the possibility of having a full season, but time is running out to make that happen.
"I am concerned based on the proposal that was made today that things are not progressing," he said. "To the contrary, I view the proposal made by the Players' Association in many ways a step backward."
The players have been locked out since Sept. 15.
"I don't know what the next step is," Bettman said. "I'm obviously very discouraged."