NEW YORK, N.Y. - As the NHL and NHL Players' Association continue to creep perilously close to another lost season, the union now finds itself wielding a fair amount of influence over where things are headed.
Not only is the NHLPA expected to show up for a meeting at the league office on Monday morning with a counter-offer — a potentially pivotal one with less than two weeks remaining to reach a deal — it also finds itself still pondering whether to file a "disclaimer of interest" by Wednesday night.
That would likely only happen if things don't go well when the sides gather Monday a few blocks from Times Square, where thousands of revellers will celebrate the start of 2013 hours later. It will be the first time the league and union have met for a bargaining session since Dec. 6, when talks went off the rails following the NHLPA's most recent proposal.
The league has since shown a willingness to bend on key issues by softening some of its demands in a comprehensive proposal delivered on Thursday night. The NHLPA also came away from informational sessions Saturday and Sunday, where aspects of the 288-page document were clarified, feeling like there could be some room for even more movement.
Among the biggest issues for the union is a proposed salary cap of $60 million in 2013-14, which would severely limit the amount of money available for free agents this summer. It is also believed not to be in favour of having the proposed amnesty buyouts counted against the players share of revenue, although not on an individual team's salary cap.
After the sides went three weeks between proposals, there is a sense of urgency as they return to the bargaining table.
The league's latest offer is designed to preserve a 48-game season that would see the playoffs end before July. For that to happen, commissioner Gary Bettman has told the union that an agreement would need to be reached by Jan. 11 so the puck could be dropped Jan. 19.
The NHL's proposal calls for a six-year term limit on free-agent deals — up from five previously — and will allow teams to re-sign their own players for up to seven years. It also includes a provision that salary can vary by 10 per cent from year to year during the course of a deal.
In the NHLPA's Dec. 6 offer, it proposed an eight-year term limit on contracts with a 25 per cent variance.
Another area where there is ground to make up is the length of the agreement itself. The NHL is asking for a 10-year CBA that includes a mutual option to terminate after eight seasons. The NHLPA has favoured a shorter deal, most recently suggesting an eight-year contract that could be terminated after six years.
Even still, the NHLPA has maintained that the sides aren't very far apart.
If the key negotiators from each side aren't able to come up with a new CBA soon, the next battle between them is likely to be waged in court. The NHLPA's executive board has until Wednesday to file a "disclaimer of interest" that would see the union dissolved and give players the chance to file anti-trust lawsuits against the league.
At this late stage, it would almost certainly put the season in jeopardy.
There is also a pending class-action lawsuit from the NHL filed with the U.S. federal court in New York. Earlier this month, the league asked the court to rule on the legality of the lockout and argued that the NHLPA was only using the threat of a "disclaimer of interest" as a bargaining tactic to "extract more favourable terms and conditions of employment."
In the meantime, the damage caused by another lockout continues to worsen. Players missed their sixth paycheque of the 2012-13 season on Sunday and instead of having the league's key stakeholders gather over new year's to celebrate the sport like usual at the Winter Classic, the NHL's hierarchy was headed back to the bargaining table.
But with the lockout hitting its 15th week and another proposal in the offing, everyone knows the stakes are high.
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How Much Are Canada's NHL Teams Worth?
Let's face it, hockey is Canada's game. So it's not a surprise that Canada's NHL teams are among the most valuable in the game. <a href="http://www.forbes.com/nhl-valuations/#p_3_s_a0_" target="_hplink">Here's how much they're worth according to Forbes magazine.</a> (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
Toronto Maple Leafs
The long-suffering Leafs are in Canada's biggest TV and fan market. The Leafs are the league's most valuable team worth $521-million. (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)
The Montreal Canadiens
The NHL's most successful team, the Montreal Canadiens are worth $445-million. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)
The Vancouver Canucks
Last year's Stanley Cup runner-up, the Vancouver Canucks are worth $300-million. (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
The Calgary Flames
The Calgary Flames might be struggling this year but they're still worth $220-million. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
The Edmonton Oilers
The Gretzky-fueled glory days are over but the Oilers have a crop of young talent that they hope can be a foundation. The other team from Alberta is worth $212-million. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
The Ottawa Senators
The host of this year's All-Star Game, the Ottawa Senators are the other team in hockey-mad Ontario. They're worth $201-million. (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)
The Winnipeg Jets
The Winnipeg Jets return to Canada was an emotional one. Canada's 7th NHL team is worth $164-million. (Photo by Marianne Helm/Getty Images)