NEW YORK, N.Y. – A deal to save the NHL season hadn’t even been signed before hockey fans started talking about Scot L. Beckenbaugh as an early candidate for the Hart Trophy.
The U.S. federal mediator got the NHL and NHL Players’ Association back to the bargaining table on Saturday afternoon and they remained there more than eight hours later. It was no small feat given some of the bad feelings that emerged earlier in the week, but Beckenbaugh managed to cool things off during a series of independent meetings with the two sides on Friday.
The resumption of negotiations came with a flood of optimism — particularly with word surfacing that the parties both had flexibility to move — but there was nothing to suggest an agreement was finally at hand after six months at the bargaining table.
“(There’s been) lots of meetings, some progress,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in an email on Saturday night. “The parties are both working hard to get things resolved.”
Meantime, the players are believed to have restored their executive board’s authority to declare a “disclaimer of interest.” The first such vote passed overwhelming last month and the same result was expected again, although the NHLPA elected not to disclose the results.
The “disclaimer of interest” gives the 30-member committee the ability to dissolve the union, which would open the door for antitrust lawsuits and bring even more uncertainty to the bargaining process. However, it was an option the NHLPA was only believed to be interested in pursuing if talks hit another snag.
The sides have moved closer to one another with a series of proposals since Dec. 27, but still need to find agreement on a number of issues, including the salary cap for next season, the length of player contracts, salary variance, the length of the CBA and players’ pension plan.
While reports started to leak out on Saturday night that tentative deals had been reached in some of those areas, a source close to the talks cautioned that nothing would be set in stone until the entire document was agreed to. There was no better evidence to support that view than the pension issue, which the sides felt they had an understanding on last month only to discover recently there was more work to do.
Beckenbaugh spent two days with the NHL and NHLPA in November and another two days in December. He has also been present for talks all week and witnessed first-hand as the process was briefly halted after the NHLPA let the first “disclaimer of interest” deadline pass just before midnight on Wednesday night.
At that point, negotiations stalled and the sides had to spend Thursday morning in a small group meeting working through an issue relating to penalties for teams failing to properly report hockey-related revenue. The union was angered by a change to the language from the expired CBA, which was eventually ironed out but led to more mistrust at the bargaining table.
That’s when the deputy director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service stepped in, becoming familiar with the three-block walk between the league office and NHLPA’s hotel during almost 13 hours of meetings on Friday.
Beckenbaugh, who was also part of talks during the NHL’s 2004-05 lockout, went one step further by getting them back in the same room a day later.
The sides are seeking to reach an agreement that would allow training camps to open by Jan. 12 and salvage a shortened 48-game season. There was also said to be an outside possibility they could squeeze in a couple more than that if a deal was reached soon — an interesting proposition both for players, who are losing almost US$30,000 on average per game, and owners who are losing more.
The lockout hit its 112th day on Saturday, making it the second longest labour dispute in NHL history. It remains the only North American sports league to see an entire season cancelled due to a lockout.