NEW YORK, - With the NHL's labour talks now shrouded in secrecy, a barometer of where things stand was expected to arrive Wednesday in the form of a self-imposed deadline for the NHL Players' Association.
The union's executive board has until just before midnight ET to decide whether it will file a "disclaimer of interest" that would see the NHLPA dissolved while introducing even more uncertainty to the negotiation process.
Players voted unanimously last month to give the 30-member committee the authority to file the disclaimer on their behalf. It was believed that if they let Wednesday's deadline pass it would be a sign that talks are on the right track — although another vote could still be held to restore the executive board's power in the future.
In the meantime, representatives from the NHL and the union met for about an hour Wednesday afternoon at the league's office. The NHLPA presented a new proposal during the session and the league will review it before the two sides get back together, likely on Wednesday evening.
"The NHL people are looking at it and we'll hear from them when that process is completed," union chief Donald Fehr said during a brief scrum with reporters. "In the meantime, we're going back to our hotel where we're working and we'll continue to do that.
"There's not a lot else to say."
A handful of representatives from both sides gathered earlier in the day to discuss the pension fund, an issue where the sides were believed to have an agreement last month but no longer see eye to eye. The players are seeking to have their pension switched to a defined benefit program.
Very few details of the most recent proposals have emerged publicly with both sides closing ranks at a critical stage in negotiations. The league has set a Jan. 11 deadline to preserve a 48-game season and there is still believed to be hope that 52 games could be squeezed in if an agreement was reached this week.
At this point, it's anyone's guess what will happen next. Commissioner Gary Bettman appeared calm and collected when he met reporters on Tuesday night but he wouldn't elaborate when asked how much progress has been made behind closed doors.
"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.
However, the commissioner did acknowledge that the league offered some movement in Tuesday night's offer while adding there were also areas where it refused to budge. It was unclear how many issues still need to be resolved and how far apart the sides are in key areas.
"Nobody is counting," Bettman said. "We're not trying to keep score, we're trying to get an agreement."
The two sides have exchanged a number of proposals after the NHL presented a 288-page contract offer to the union last week.
There have been a few hints the 109-day lockout may be nearing its end. Players who spent the last couple months in Europe are starting to trickle back to North America, including New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who posted a message Tuesday on Twitter saying that "hopefully I'm coming back for the right reason."
The lockout is now the second longest in league history — behind only the labour dispute that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season — and saw the NHL miss out on in its signature event on Tuesday.
Rather than having more than 100,000 fans packed into Michigan Stadium for the Winter Classic and a national television audience in both Canada and the U.S., all of the attention given to the league centred around its latest work stoppage.
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