Officially, the NHL labour negotiations are still moving along, although in the words of NHL Players' Association executive director Donald Fehr there is "still a ways to go if an agreement can be reached."
The fact that negotiations are progressing is in itself good news, as it meant the union did not file its disclaimer of interest, which would have started the process of dissolving the union. While Fehr would not say what the players decided, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said nothing was filed with the league by the union's self-imposed deadline of midnight Wednesday.
"The word disclaimer has yet to be uttered to us by the Players' Association," Bettman said shortly after the four-hour negotiating session with the players ended around 1 a.m. Thursday. "I know there's been a lot of confusion about a disclaimer. It's not that it gets filed with a court or the [National Labor Relations Board] when you disclaim interest as a union. You notify the other side. We have not been notified."
However, Fehr implied the union could still file the disclaimer with the league in the future. But it would require another vote by the players, although that is not an onerous task.
"All I can tell you about that is the players retained all the legal options they always had," Fehr said.
Both Fehr and Bettman said there was progress on some issues but they are still a long way from forging a new collective agreement that would end the 110-day lockout.
It was also revealed a U.S. federal mediator, Scot Beckenbaugh, joined the talks this week as the result of a joint request by the union and the league. The two sides will meet again at 10 a.m. Thursday morning at Beckenbaugh's request.
"We will consider where we are in the morning," Fehr said.
It appears that along with the reduction of the salary cap in 2013-14, the pension plan is now a major issue.
It was originally thought the players wanted a cap on escrow payments, but that is apparently not the case.
By the time the full bargaining team for the NHL Players' Association sat down with its counterpart with the NHL on Wednesday night the pension issue was talked about almost as much as the union's disclaimer of interest.
Given that both sides became tightlipped as the tiny signs of progress emerged this week, the details of the dispute were not clear. What is known, according to a source close to the players, is the union thought it was close to an agreement with the NHL on a defined-benefit plan but the league came back this week demanding new conditions that angered the players.
The situation is rather complicated but in simple terms, the owners do not want to be completely liable for covering the pension plan, particularly after the collective agreement expires.
Again, neither Fehr nor Bettman would discuss the pension dispute in detail.
"It's a very complicated issue," Bettman said. "I mean, the number of variables and the number of issues that have to be addressed by people who carry the title actuary or pension lawyer are pretty numerous and it's pretty easy to get off track but that's something that we understand is important to the players.
"If we can get the issues resolved we're hopeful we can satisfy the players on that but that's still a work in progress."
It also appears the players want the owners to take on a bigger share in funding the pension. In their offer made last week, the owners said the plan should be funded from the players' share of a 50-50 split in league revenue from the owners. The owners also said they would set aside $50-million (all currency U.S.) for the pension from the $300-million fund they would create for "make-whole payments" to players with existing contracts. This would be squeezed once their share of league revenue drops from 57 per cent in the old collective agreement to 50 per cent in the new one.
The players are being stubborn on the pension issue because they feel they have already made a lot more concessions than the owners. The biggest one in their eyes is agreeing to drop their share of revenue from 57 per cent to 50.
For the first time since negotiations re-started this week, it appeared the session did not end with one side presenting the other with a new offer or response to a previous one. The NHL did give the players a response Wednesday evening to an offer the union filed the previous day but the meeting that followed appeared to be more conventional bargaining rather than one side pouring over the other's presentation.
The players want to avoid a large drop in the salary cap in 2013-14 when the first full season of a 50-50 revenue split kicks in. The NHL is demanding that contracts be limited to terms of six or seven years, that they do not vary in salary by more than 10 per cent from year to year. They are also asking for a 10-year agreement, although both sides could opt out after eight years.
The owners offered a pro-rated $70-million (all currency U.S.) cap for this season is, with the cap dropping to $60-million in 2013-14. The $60-million cap is based on the $3.3-billion in revenue the NHL earned in 2011-12, albeit split 50-50 with the players.
The players have apparently asked for a cap of $65-million in 2013-14.