NHL talks break down after two days of optimism

NEW YORK, N.Y. – The NHL labour talks have hit another roadblock — and this one appears to be massive.

After two optimistic days that suggested a deal could be imminent, negotiations between the league and the NHL Players’ Association broke off dramatically Thursday.

The NHLPA presented a new offer to the league Thursday afternoon, a proposal that union head Donald Fehr called “a clear outline” to end the dispute.

Fehr said he believed the two sides are “clearly very close if not on top of one another in connection with most of the major issues.”

The league flatly rejected the offer, saying the two sides aren’t close despite what Fehr says.

“I don’t know why he did that,” an angry Gary Bettman told a news conference.

The NHL commissioner said any new offers the league made this week are now off the table.

“The take or give or bottom line on all this is: it appears that the union is suggesting because we made substantial movements in certain areas that we’re close to a deal,” said Bettman. “But those moves were contingent on the union specifically agreeing on other things, which while the union may have moved towards, didn’t agree to.”

During talks this week, the league said it was willing to increase the amount of deferred transition money paid to the players to US$300 million — which sat directly between what had most recently been tabled by the NHL ($211 million) and NHLPA ($393 million).

Another issue that surfaced was the league’s desire to see a 10-year term on the collective bargaining agreement. The union’s offer Thursday was for eight years with an option for opting out after Year 6.

“I’m disappointed beyond belief that we are where we are tonight,” said Bettman.

Fehr’s comments took an equally negative tone.

“What can we tell the hockey fans of Canada? You can tell them that it looks like this is not going to be resolved in the immediate future,” Fehr said after telling the media that the league had left the union a voicemail rejecting the latest offer. “I hope that turns out to be wrong. But that’s certainly the message that we have today.”

There are no new talks scheduled.

“We’re going to take a deep breath and look back at where we are and what needs to be accomplished,” said Bettman.

In their latest offer, Fehr said the players “responded comprehensively” to the issues that had been the focus of this week’s meetings.

But NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the offer ”missed the mark.”

“We’ll stay and re-engage if you agree to the three things that we say are important to us, which is the term of the CBA, term limits of player contracts, which is the hill we will die on, and compliance issues,” said Daly. “And what we got today, quite frankly and disappointingly, missed the mark on all three respects. So for the union to suggest somehow we are close, is cherry picking and it’s unfortunate.”

The latest developments came after the two sides held bargaining sessions Tuesday and Wednesday that stretched into the wee hours.

The sides returned to the table for about an hour Thursday night with a much smaller group than the one that met the previous two days.

Daly and general counsel Bob Batterman represented the league while Fehr and special counsel Steve Fehr sat in for the union along with a group of players.

None of the six league owners who were part of marathon sessions Tuesday and Wednesday took part.

Four members of that group — Pittsburgh’s Ron Burkle, Tampa’s Jeff Vinik, Toronto’s Larry Tanenbaum and Winnipeg’s Mark Chipman — were considered moderates who travelled to New York in an effort to broker a deal.

“We needed a response on key items that were important to us, but we were optimistic that we were down to very few issues. I believe a deal was within reach,” Burkle said in a statement. “We were therefore surprised when the Fehrs made a unilateral and ‘non-negotiable’ decision — which is their right — to end the player/owner process that has moved us farther in two days than we moved at any time in the past months.”

Thursday was the 82nd day of the lockout.

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