TORONTO - The NHL is making a serious bid to save the season.
With another year in jeopardy because of a labour dispute, the league softened its demands in key areas of collective bargaining with a new proposal to the NHL Players' Association on Thursday night. The comprehensive offer included compliance buyouts and less restrictive rules on player contracts, according to sources.
The league'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 (the NHL's most recent offer proposed a five per cent variance).
A source told The Canadian Press the deal is contingent on the NHLPA signing off by Jan. 11. Training camps would then open the next day and the season would start Jan. 19.
The NHL and NHLPA plan to review the proposal on a conference call Saturday and could meet in person on Sunday.
For the first time during these negotiations, the league is also willing to consider one-time compliance buyouts to help teams transition from a system that saw players receive 57 per cent of revenues to one that pays them 50 per cent. It has proposed giving each team one such buyout, with the money counting against the players' overall share in revenue but not an individual team's salary cap.
Deputy commissioner Bill Daly confirmed the existence of the new offer Friday, but declined to comment on its details.
"We are hopeful that once the union's staff and negotiating committee have had an opportunity to thoroughly review and consider our new proposal, they will share it with the players," Daly said in a statement. "We want to be back on the ice as soon as possible."
The NHLPA's negotiating committee and executive board was scheduled to hold an internal conference call Friday afternoon to discuss the offer.
The proposed length of the agreement is 10 years through the 2021-22 season, with a mutual option for both parties to opt our after eight years.
According to sources, the league's detailed proposal covered both the major issues that have divided the sides and a number of the smaller ones they've already found agreement on during more than five months of negotiations. It also put the US$300 million in deferred transition payments back on the table — something it had previously withdrawn when talks broke down Dec. 6.
Despite the movement from the league, there is still clearly work to be done. Among the items in the proposal a source indicated the NHLPA isn't keen on is a $60-million salary cap in 2013-14, which the union believes will result in players paying a high rate of escrow.
The NHL and NHLPA have a little over two weeks to reach an agreement that would save the season. The 104-day lockout has seen all regular-season games cancelled through Jan. 14 and a deal needs to be reached soon to salvage a 48-game schedule — the minimum commissioner Gary Bettman says must be played.
Negotiations have been at a standstill since talks broke off in New York at the beginning of the month, but Daly created a buzz Dec. 19 when he predicted on Hockey Night in Canada Radio there would be a season. Later that day, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr told reporters the owners needed to show a willingness to negotiate for it to happen.
"I certainly hope he's right," Fehr said of Daly's prediction. "That's the players' goal, that's what we want to try and do. Hopefully, we'll get back together and negotiate out the remaining issues as soon as possible."
In the meantime, a decision is looming for the NHLPA's executive board. Players voted overwhelmingly to give that 30-member committee the power to file a "disclaimer of interest" until Jan. 2 — a move that would see the union dissolved and would allow the players to challenge the legality of the lockout in court.