Cautious optimism in marathon NHL talks

Two days of long sessions bring hope

calexander@newsobserver.comDecember 6, 2012 

The National Hockey League may be edging closer to playing a season. Maybe a 54-game season. Maybe a season that begins just before or after Christmas.

Then again, two days of marathon negotiations may be all for naught.

A group of NHL owners and players put in another marathon collective bargaining session Wednesday in New York, not breaking up until 1 a.m. Thursday.

When it was over, Winnipeg Jets defenseman Ron Hainsey told reporters the two sides had "a series of candid discussions." NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly called it "good, candid dialogue" but also noted there are "critical open issues between the two parties."

Is the NHL closer to finally starting the season? It's still too early to tell. In an effort to agree on a CBA and end the lockout, other sessions have seemed promising and fallen apart with much rancor.

The two sides will meet again Thursday. The NHLPA will hold an internal meeting before the CBA session.

For the second straight day, six NHL owners and a group of players held collective bargaining meetings without NHL commissioner Gary Bettman or NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr in the room. For the second day, some apparent progress was made, with both the league and union making CBA proposals.

Both sides emerged from Tuesday's sessions feeling generally optimistic about the dialogue and exchanges. On Wednesday, the NHL held its scheduled board of governors meeting, and NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly gave an update on what had been said.

"We are pleased with the process that is ongoing," Bettman told reporters after the governors meeting, without elaboration and without taking questions.

After the two-hour governors meeting, the six owners and the group of 19 players again met -- together and in separate groups -- Wednesday afternoon and then late into the night. Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews and Pittsburgh Penguins forward Craig Adams had to leave because of other commitments.

It's believed the league is seeking a 10-year CBA, while the union has proposed a shorter term, possibly five years.

There was speculation the two sides might be considering a 54-game season that would begin either just before or after Christmas.

The league is requesting an immediate 50-50 split of hockey-related revenue (HRR) and says it will "make whole" the players' existing contracts through deferred payments. The players received 57 percent of HRR last season -- about $1.88 billion.

Carolina Hurricanes captain Eric Staal is not attending the meetings but said he received texts Wednesday from some of the players in New York.

“It’s been up and down as we’ve gone on, but definitely positive vibes were coming out of (New York) and hopefully we can keep the ball rolling and get back to playing,” Staal said after skating at Raleigh Center Ice. “The main thing is there was some positive progress that you hope continues and gets us back on the ice.

“I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen but I’m hoping something good is going to happen. There has been a lot of bad that has gone on the last while, and yesterday finally both sides felt like there was something created.”

The idea of meeting without Bettman and Fehr was suggested by Bettman himself after federal mediators couldn’t help end the impasse. The owners’ group included four who had not been in any of the previous CBA negotiating sessions – Ron Burkle (Pittsburgh Penguins), Mark Chipman (Winnipeg Jets), Larry Tanenbaum (Toronto Maple Leafs) and Jeff Vinik (Tampa Bay Lightning).

“Some new energy, some new voices in the talks hopefully can spur a deal getting done, because it looks to me that it’s right there and can get closed out, hopefully,” Eric Staal said.

Burkle, a multi-billionaire who has experience in resolving labor disputes and is considered one of the more moderate NHL owners. On the players’ side was the Pens’ Sidney Crosby, who has been a part of past negotiating sessions.

Jordan Staal, who helped the Pens win a Stanley Cup, was traded to the Canes in June. He said he liked the thought of Burkle being involved for the first time.

“I was happy that new ownership came into the room,” Jordan Staal said. “(Burkle) is a great guy and understands what’s going on in the business world. And he truly does care about us playing and getting the league back on the ice.”

Alexander: 919-829-8945

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