Will there be an NHL season after all?
The momentum appears to be there, with a new offer from NHL owners and a conference call scheduled for Saturday between the owners and players. If all goes well on that call, the two sides will reopen negotiations in person in New York on Sunday.
Both sides admit talks this weekend will be a last-ditch attempt to save a shortened hockey season. The NHL and its players have no more than 10 days left to save a 48-game season, a league executive said after the new offer led to renewed talks.
The executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of Gary Bettman's gag order on management, said the NHL commissioner made it clear in the past two weeks to both the union and the 30 NHL teams that the last possible date to start a truncated season is Jan. 19. This would allow for a 48-game season, the shortest schedule Mr. Bettman says the owners would allow, plus playoffs that would conclude in late June.
In that case, the executive said, the players and owners need to reach a new agreement by Jan. 5 or 6. That would leave one week to complete enough of the legal paperwork for the lockout to end, another week for training camp and the season would start on Saturday, Jan. 19. Other reports put the deadline to reach an agreement at Jan. 11 in order to start playing on Jan. 19 or the NHL will cancel the season.
"I think everybody does recognize we're at the end," the NHL executive said. "However the next week plays out, everybody knows what the end result is. We're either making a deal or we're all taking a very long vacation."
The latest burst of optimism in the NHL lockout – which hits 105 days on Saturday, the second-longest one in league history – came in the wake of a new offer from the owners sent to NHL Players' Association executive director Donald Fehr in an e-mail message from Mr. Bettman late Thursday afternoon. After a conference call with its executive and negotiating committees on Friday afternoon, the NHLPA agreed its representatives would go over the offer with their counterparts from the owners by telephone on Saturday. The call is to answer any questions from the players and it is hoped in-person negotiations, which broke off in acrimony two weeks ago, will resume Sunday in New York.
Neither side would comment Friday night after the NHLPA conference call ended. Earlier in the day, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in a statement released by the league he "can confirm that we delivered to the union a new, comprehensive proposal for a [collective agreement] late yesterday afternoon. We want to be back on the ice as soon as possible."
In its new offer, the league softened its demands in key disputed areas. It offered to increase the term limit on player contracts to six years from five, with teams allowed to sign their own players for seven years. It also raised the amount salaries can increase annually, to 10 per cent from 5, and allowed teams to make one "compliance buyout" of a contract in the summer of 2013 that would not count against its salary cap.
There was also movement on the salary cap for this season, as the NHL offered to let teams have a cap of $70.2-million (all currency U.S.) for 2012-13, although it would be pro-rated to account for the 34 games lost on the 82-game schedule to the lockout. But in 2013-14, the cap would drop to $60-million to reflect the move to a 50-50 split of NHL revenue between the owners and players.