TORONTO - The NHL's latest round of collective bargaining talks ended before they began.
A scheduled bargaining session was cancelled Wednesday afternoon after top executives from the league and players' union held a secret morning meeting to discuss the best way to move forward in the discussions.
They mutually decided to reconvene with their negotiating teams on Thursday morning, when key economic issues are slated to be back on the table.
"I think system-related proposals and economical proposals are the most critical issues and probably the issues where we have the widest divergence of views currently," deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The Canadian Press in an interview. "I'm all in favour of spending as much time as possible trying to bridge those gaps."
The clock is ticking. The current collective agreement is set to expire Sept. 15 and the NHL says it will lock out the players if a new deal hasn't been reached.
The atmosphere around the talks is a mix of uncertainty and growing frustration — with NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr acknowledging he didn't "know what's going to happen for sure" when the sides met again Thursday.
"You get up in the morning and you try and work that day to see if you can make progress," he added. "If you don't find an agreement that way you do it again the next day and you keep doing it until you find a way."
On Thursday, the NHLPA will expand on its proposal as it pertains to rules governing player contracts, according to two sources. Those details weren't previously included when the players presented their offer last week.
The sides have put two very different offers on the table and are still grappling with a wide financial gap.
They attempted to start moving toward a more formal negotiation with only the four main players in the room — Daly joined NHL commissioner Gary Bettman for Wednesday morning's two-hour sitdown with Fehr and his brother Steve Fehr, the union's No. 2 man.
"I think more than anything else it was to review where we are in the process, where we've come from, where we are with the various proposals and to determine how to move the process forward in the best way possible — hoping and understanding that both sides are committed to using the time left to making a deal as quickly as possible," said Daly.
Very little progress seemed to be made. However, Donald Fehr cautioned against viewing the subsequent cancellation of an afternoon bargaining session as a bad sign.
"This is one of the normal things that happen," he said. "Sometimes you schedule things and they don't come off, sometimes you don't schedule things and you end up with much longer or more involved meetings, sometimes you change the format. This is an ordinary part of the process."
The union put forth an offer that includes a smaller percentage of revenues for players over the next three seasons in exchange for an expanded revenue sharing program to help struggling teams. The NHLPA estimated that players would be giving up US$465 million in salaries if the league continued on its pace of 7.1 per cent growth each season.
The league's proposal called for a major drag on salaries — accomplished by lowering the players' share of revenue from 57 per cent to 43 per cent — while introducing new contract restrictions, including a five-year cap on contracts.
Beyond the monetary issue at the heart of talks, each side has prioritized a secondary cause.
The NHLPA would like to see revenue sharing between teams expanded and proposed the creation of an industry growth fund that would see $100 million contributed each year for struggling franchises. It would be part of a wider plan totalling $250 million in annual redistributed funds and Bettman would be given the discretion to decide how the money from the industry growth fund is spread around.
The NHL is largely happy with the current economic system, but has made no secret of the fact it would like to see the end to heavily front-loaded, long-term contacts. As part of its proposal, deals would be required to pay the same amount each season.
Fehr paused when asked if Wednesday's meeting of key executives included a shift in position from either side.
"I'm not going to try and characterize it," said Fehr. "I think it would be not conducive to the process for me to try and do that. So, you just (have to) bear with me on it."