NEW YORK, - The NHL and NHL Players' Association finally seem to be speaking the same language, but they still have a gap to bridge in negotiations on a collective bargaining agreement.
The union tabled a comprehensive proposal Wednesday that generated a tepid response from the league. However, commissioner Gary Bettman acknowledged the six-page offer was a step in the right direction and the document appeared to offer a path forward in talks, with the sides now envisioning the same type of economic system.
"There was movement on some issues by the players' association and that was appreciated," said Bettman. "But we're still far apart. Hopefully there will have been some momentum from today's session that we can build off of to hopefully bring this process to a successful conclusion."
The union proposed a 50-50 split of revenues during the five-year deal along with $393 million in deferred make whole payments throughout the agreement. Two weeks ago, the league offered $211 million and a 50-50 split.
NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr acknowledged that his constituents are anxious to end the lockout and indicated that the new offer is "about as good" as the players are willing to make.
"(The players) are suffering right along with the fans," said Fehr. "We made an enormous move in the owners direction to try and end it — at least as of today that hasn't been successful."
Until now, the union had been pushing for a system that would see players paid a fixed amount of revenue each season rather than receiving a percentage of it. However, the new offer included some safeguards to ensure they'd be protected in the event league revenues stalled, including a clause that states the players' share can't drop from year to year.
"The players are making enormous concessions to the owners and we want some protection on the downside," said Fehr.
There is still ground to cover on contract issues as well.
The new NHLPA offer included a rule that would punish teams who sign players to long-term, back-diving contracts — something the league has identified as an important issue. It also called for players making more than $1 million in the minors to have their salary count against the salary cap.
However, the union chose not adopt the NHL's proposed changes to unrestricted free agency, entry-level deals and salary arbitration, among other things. And the league still hasn't shown any willingness to budge on those issues.
"On the big things, there was ... no reciprocity in any meaningful sense," said Fehr. "No movement on the players share. No movement on salary arbitration eligibility. No movement on free agency eligibility. No movement on a pension plan, although they say they'd like to do it."
The league and union did have a candid discussion about the NHLPA's new offer. After giving the NHL a chance to read it through, the sides reconvened Wednesday afternoon and spent two more hours at the bargaining table.
"We went through their proposal point by point," said Bettman. "We talked about the things that were agreeable, we talked about the things that we could modify, we talked about the things that we had no more room to move on and explained our proposal on each of those elements."
With the lockout into its 10th week, the sides are attempting to reach a deal that would see a shortened schedule played this season. The labour dispute has damaged the sport's business, with Bettman saying the league is losing between $18 and $20 million every day of the labour dispute.
The commissioner indicated that he was surprised they hadn't already been able to reach an agreement.
"We made a proposal (in October) to save an 82-game season and frankly we're all mystified as to why we're not playing in light of that offer and in light of the fact that the players are losing as a group between $8 and $10 million a day," said Bettman. "We could have been playing, we could have been continuing the momentum this game had on an offer and an agreement that was long term and fair.
"So there's a lot about this process that one could scratch their head about."
The sides plan to break for the Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S. on Thursday and touch base again Friday, but no further meetings have been scheduled.
In the meantime, the league is expected to cancel another batch of games before the end of the week. The entire schedule has already been wiped out through Nov. 30 and Bettman acknowledged that it's "inevitable" more games will be removed soon.