NEW YORK, N.Y. - With a deal that would save the season tantalizingly close, the NHL's collective bargaining talks broke down in spectacular fashion on Thursday night.
A bizarre series of twists and turns played out in front of reporters and saw the sides taking pointed shots at each other. It was a shocking end to a day that began with some close to the situation believing a deal was at hand — and raised serious questions about why the league and the players can't close with seemingly so little now separating them.
Donald Fehr, executive director of the NHL Players' Association, raised hopes after tabling a new proposal during an hour-long meeting on Thursday night and claiming the sides were "clearly very close, if not on top of one another in connection with most of the major issues."
The optimism didn't last long. A voicemail left on union special counsel Steve Fehr's cellphone during the press conference carried an important message: Not only was the NHL flatly rejecting the union's offer, it was also pulling all the concessions it made earlier this week off the table.
By the time commissioner Gary Bettman met reporters, he was in a rage over the enthusiasm Fehr expressed while characterizing the status of negotiations.
"I find it almost incomprehensible he did that," said Bettman, who shook as he spoke.
He and deputy commissioner Bill Daly made it clear the league would need the union to include three key elements before any deal is signed:
— a 10-year term for the CBA, with a mutual reopener after eight years (the NHLPA offered eight years, with an option to opt out after Year 6).
— no compliance buyouts (buyouts of player contracts that don't count against a team's salary cap).
— contract term limits of five years, which Daly described as "the hill we will die on."
"What we got today, quite frankly and disappointingly, missed the mark on all three respects," said Daly. "So for the union to suggest somehow we are close, is cherry picking and it's unfortunate."
The dramatic session capped a fascinating three-day stretch unlike any other during these negotiations. With Bettman and Fehr relegated to the sidelines, owners and players held marathon negotiating sessions Tuesday and Wednesday that saw both take steps towards the other.
Not only did the NHL drop proposed changes to unrestricted free agency, entry-level contracts and arbitration, it also made a significant financial jump. It offered to increase the amount of compensation paid to the players to help ease the transition from the previous contract to US$300 million — which sat directly between what it had previously tabled ($211 million) and what the NHLPA had asked for ($393 million).
However, the league viewed its offer as a total package and seemed puzzled by the NHLPA's counter-offer on Thursday, which included a shorter term, more flexibility on contract limits and left the door open for the sides to negotiate on compliance buyouts and escrow caps.
Fehr seemed puzzled by the NHL's swift rejection of the proposal.
"What can we tell the hockey fans of Canada? You can tell them that it looks like this is not going to be resolved in the immediate future," he said. "I hope that turns out to be wrong. But that's certainly the message that we have today."
There are no talks scheduled.
"We're going to take a deep breath and look back at where we are and what needs to be accomplished," said Bettman.
For the first time, he laid out the parameters for saving the season. Bettman indicated the league would not consider a schedule of fewer than 48 games — the same length it had after the 1994-95 lockout — which leaves roughly a month to reach an agreement.
Many had hoped that was going to be accomplished this week instead. A surge of optimism was injected into talks after four new owners joined negotiations on Tuesday, each of them viewed as moderates who travelled to New York in an effort to broker a deal.
When that failed to happen, the league lifted its gag order on owners and allowed each of them to release a statement.
"We needed a response on key items that were important to us, but we were optimistic that we were down to very few issues," said Pittsburgh Penguins owner Ron Burkle. "I believe a deal was within reach. We were therefore surprised when the Fehrs made a unilateral and 'non-negotiable' decision — which is their right — to end the player/owner process that has moved us farther in two days than we moved at any time in the past months."
The union walked away from the sessions with complaints of its own. Winnipeg Jets defenceman Ron Hainsey, an influential member of the NHLPA's negotiating committee, said that players were told by the NHL on Wednesday night that it would be a potential "deal-breaker" if Fehr was brought back into the negotiating room.
At that point, the players felt it was a necessary move to make in order to finish off the agreement. Fehr took part in Thursday's meeting.
"We were definitely moving towards each other and as confident as some of our players are in the issues, we cannot close deals," said Hainsey.
At this point, it appears no one can. The NHL's third lockout in the last two decades has been much tougher to gauge than the ones that preceded it. Coming off record revenues, the fight simply seemed to be about money and for a time this week the sides finally started to agree on how it would be split.
Despite the strong rhetoric on Thursday night, there seems to be plenty of common ground to work off once negotiations restart. The biggest challenge for those closely involved is finding a way remain even-keeled following 72 hours of extreme ups and downs.
"I'm trying not to get too optimistic," said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. "I've been optimistic at different points in this, but I can say that at any point this is by far the best deal we've had (on the table). There's no reason why this can't be good for everyone."