NEW YORK, N.Y. - With the NHL and Players' Association trading proposals back and forth ahead of a deadline to save the season, hope is on the rise that an agreement to return the game to the ice is getting close.
What happens Wednesday will likely determine if that ends up being the case.
Armed with a new comprehensive offer from the league — presented on Tuesday night after a 24-hour period that saw top NHL executives work through New Year's Eve — the union is expected to provide a response at some point during the day. Just as importantly, it must also decide whether it will let a self-imposed deadline pass to file a "disclaimer of interest," which would throw negotiations into uncertainty at a critical juncture.
Commissioner Gary Bettman said the league isn't focused on that possibility and noted that the NHL has been making some movement on the key issues.
"In our response, there were certain things that the players' association asked for that we agreed to, there were some things that we moved in their direction and there were other things that we said no," Bettman said. "But that's part of the process."
The sides have now exchanged three different proposals over the last five days — easily the most aggressive stretch of bargaining during negotiations that have stretched over six months.
For the second straight night, Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr remained very tight-lipped when speaking with the media. Fehr declined to be specific about what was being negotiated.
"It's better to be meeting than not but I'm not saying anything else more about it," he said.
The talks are being held with an eye on preserving at least a 48-game schedule — the same number that was played following the 1994-95 lockout. An agreement would need to be in place by Jan. 11 for that to happen.
For now, the more important deadline passes just before midnight on Wednesday when the NHLPA's executive board must decide if it wants to keep being represented by the union. Players voted unanimously last month to give that 30-member committee the ability to dissolve the NHLPA prior to the deadline, which would open the door for anti-trust lawsuits and potentially halt negotiations.
A decision by the players not to file the disclaimer would be seen as a sign that the labour talks are going well.
There have already been a few hints the 108-day lockout may be nearing its end. Players who have spent time in Europe are starting to trickle back to North America, including Bruins forward Tyler Seguin and Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who wrote on Twitter that "hopefully I'm coming back for the right reason."
With a push now on to make an agreement, Fehr and Bettman rejoined talks for the first time in more than a month. The two leaders stayed out of the bargaining room during three days of negotiations in early December.
Last week, the NHL softened demands on new contract rules and included a salary cap of $60 million for the 2013-14 season — a number the union believes is too low. That would severely limit the money teams have to spend in the coming off-season.
The sides also held a series of smaller meetings Tuesday to discuss issues such as revenue sharing and pensions "to make sure there was a common understanding," according to Bettman.
Both leaders indicated that it was a good sign the parties were going to be in the same room together for a fourth straight day.
"The fact that we're involved in a continuous process is something that I'm glad to see, but we're clearly not done yet," said Bettman.
The union leaders and a handful of players left the league office around 10 p.m. on Tuesday night and were facing a potentially long night.
"What we have to do is go through the document, try to make some sense out of it, compare it and see what the appropriate thing is to do next," said Fehr.
When asked how many issues remained to be worked out, Bettman replied that "nobody's counting like that."
"We're not trying to keep score, we're trying to get an agreement done," he added.
Prior to talks going off the rails last month, Fehr said the sides were so close that they were virtually on top of one another on all of the important issues and reiterated that statement again this week.
Tuesday's talks came on a day the NHL has devoted to celebrating the sport with the Winter Classic outdoor game. This year's event between the Red Wings and Maple Leafs was expected to draw more than 100,000 fans to Michigan Stadium, but it was cancelled two months ago.
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