NEW YORK, N.Y. - Just steps from the massive celebration in Times Square, top NHL executives spent New Year's Eve reviewing a collective bargaining proposal that could save a shortened season.

With the negotiations at a critical stage, commissioner Gary Bettman, deputy commissioner Bill Daly and other league staff worked into the night Monday and were hoping to return to the bargaining table with the NHL Players' Association by noon on Tuesday.

"We have to review the response," said Bettman. "There was an opportunity for the players' association to highlight the areas that they thought we should focus on based on their response. And that's something we've now got to look at very closely."

The NHLPA's offer came three days after the league made movement in a comprehensive 288-page document delivered by email on Thursday night. Both sides were fairly tight-lipped following roughly three hours of meetings on Monday afternoon.

Donald Fehr, the NHLPA's executive director, said the union improved the offer it made on Dec. 6 but declined to elaborate on the details.

"We covered the range of subjects they covered (in the proposal)," said Fehr. "Their document included a very long list of contract language as opposed to bullet-point items. We have not attempted to do that.

"I don't even want to attempt to do that until we know what we're trying to agree on."

The talks have reached an important stage with the season hanging in the balance. For the first time publicly, Bettman acknowledged Monday that an agreement needs to be reached in time to start the year by Jan. 19 — essentially setting a drop dead date of Jan. 11 to allow for a seven-day training camp beforehand.

"What we've said is we need to drop the puck by Jan. 19 if we're going to play a 48-game season," said Bettman. "We don't think it makes sense to play a season that is any shorter than that."

Of course, there is also the possibility of playing more than 48 games per team if a deal is reached even sooner.

It appears as though the sides are finally committed to trying to hammer out a deal. The tone has changed drastically from the last round of negotiations, when three days of meetings ended with Fehr announcing that a deal was close before Bettman and Daly rebuked that notion.

On Monday, Fehr reiterated that his view on the situation hasn't changed but he was unwilling to gauge whether the NHL found common ground in the union's new proposal.

"I'm not going to make any judgments about that," said Fehr. "We just have to wait and see."

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.

Prior to the latest round of bargaining, the sides remained apart on the length of the CBA, term limits on contracts and how much salaries are permitted to vary from year to year.

If the talks go sideways, the NHLPA's executive board has the option to file a "disclaimer of interest" by Wednesday night that would see the union dissolved and give players the chance to file anti-trust lawsuits against the league.

"Players retain all the legal options they always have had," said Fehr.

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."

However, when asked about that issue on Monday, Bettman replied that "it's there."

"There's nothing that's happening tonight or tomorrow," he added.

For now, the focus is entirely on bargaining.

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