NEW YORK – Instead of closing in on a deal, the NHL and the players' association are further apart than ever before.
Union executive director Donald Fehr began the first of his two news conferences Thursday night by proclaiming he believed the sides had agreements on such issues as actual dollars, and then returned moments later to reveal the NHL rejected everything his side offered.
Hot-button topics such as the "make-whole" provision on existing contracts not only weren't settled, but are no longer being offered by the league. Forget that owners were willing to pay up to $300 million to cover the costs, now Commissioner Gary Bettman is saying the entire concept is off the table — along with everything else the league proposed during the previous two days of talks.
"They knew there was a major gulf between us and yet they came down here and told you we were close," deputy commissioner Bill Daly said.
Fehr vehemently disputed that assessment and stuck to his opinion that the sides really aren't far apart, saying they are "clearly very close if not on top of one another."
When the NHL agreed to increase its make-whole offer of deferred payments from $211 million to $300 million it was part of a proposed package that required the union to agree on three nonnegotiable points. Instead, the players' association accepted the raise in funds, but then made counterproposals on the issues the league stated had no wiggle room.
That ended Thursday's delayed meeting after just an hour and sent the NHL negotiating team back to the league office.
"I am disappointed beyond belief," Bettman said. "We're going to take a deep breath and look back at where we are and what needs to be accomplished."
The sides won't meet again before Saturday at the earliest. While Bettman insisted that a drop-dead date for a deal that would preserve a season with "integrity" hasn't been established — even internally — clearly there isn't a lot of time to work out an agreement.
"I'm surprised," Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby said. "We feel like we moved in their direction."
The 2004-05 season was lost completely before the players' association accepted a deal that included a salary cap for the first time. While no major philosophical issues such as that exist in these negotiations, the sides still don't appear to be ready to come to an agreement.
"It looks like this is not going to be resolved in the immediate future," Fehr said.
A 48-game season was played in 1995 after a lockout stretched into January. Bettman said he wouldn't have a season shorter than that.
As Donald Fehr was painting a positive picture, Daly was calling Fehr's brother, Steve — the union's special counsel — to say that the NHL was rejecting the players' counteroffer. Once the union was unwilling to accept the league's three main conditions, nothing else mattered.
"Not only is it unusual, I would be hard-pressed to think of anything comparable in my experience," Steve Fehr said about the instant rejection.
The NHL wants to limit personal player contracts to five years, seven for a club's own player, and has elevated the issue to the highest level of importance. The union countered with an offer of an eight-year maximum length with the variable in salary being no greater than a 25 percent difference between the highest-paid year of the deal and the lowest.
"It's the hill we will die on," said Daly, who added that the owners were "insulted" by the players' response to the owners' offer Wednesday night.
The other sticking points the NHL demanded of the players are a 10-year term on the new agreement, with a mutual opt-out option after eight years, and no compliance buy-outs or caps on escrow in the transition phase to the new structure. The union presented an offer of an eight-year deal with a reopener after six.
The NHL believes that the union merely wants to take the parts of the offer it wants and then try to negotiate on the other conditions that make those parts possible.
"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," Bettman said. "Those moves were contingent on the union specifically agreeing on other things, which while the union may have moved toward, didn't agree to."
Talks resumed Tuesday night with owners and players in the room, and Bettman and Donald Fehr on the outside. It sparked what seemed to be the most optimistic developments in the lockout that has lasted 82 days.
But the tenor began to change Wednesday, and discourse erupted on a wild Thursday night that featured three news conferences in the span of an unprecedented hour of chaos. The sides went from not wanting to say much of anything Wednesday to not being able to stop voicing their opinions Thursday.
When the players suggested Wednesday night that they wanted Donald Fehr to rejoin the negotiations Thursday, the NHL informed them that his inclusion could be a "deal-breaker."
"We thought we were getting close. There was definitely movement toward each other," Winnipeg Jets defenseman Ron Hainsey said. "As confident as some of us players are in the issues, we cannot close deals. I'd love to think I could, we cannot."
Donald and Steve Fehr were in Thursday's session, as were Daly and lead league counsel Bob Batterman. None of the six owners who attended the meetings Tuesday and Wednesday were present, though some players were.
Steve Fehr and a number of players stood in the back of the room with arms folded as Bettman and Daly stood at the podium to present the league's position.
There were already signs the process was breaking down earlier Thursday when the union requested that federal mediators rejoin the discussions. A similar request was turned down by the league earlier this week. Mediators previously were unsuccessful in creating a breakthrough after two days of discussions last week.
Without mediation, and the NHL's preference to keep Donald Fehr away from the table, the players became a bit miffed.
Negotiations resumed a little after 2 p.m. Wednesday and proceeded in fits and starts as the league and the players' association searched for an agreement. As they had the day before, talks went deep into the night, breaking two hours for dinner before finishing in the early morning hours.
One point of contention is the length of a new contract, with owners looking for a 10-year pact, and players wanting a shorter term. The league also is seeking to limit the length of individual player contracts to five years.
"What we got today, quite frankly and disappointingly, missed the mark on all three respects," Daly said. "So for the union to suggest somehow we are close, is cherry picking and it's unfortunate."
Some hope emerged Tuesday in the first round of talks that kept Bettman on the outside along with Fehr, while six owners and about 18 players talked inside. The positive feeling carried over into Wednesday morning when various team executives said they heard good reports during an NHL board of governors meeting.
There were no owners present for the final round of talks Thursday, but those who joined the process for the first time during the week expressed their disappointment following the breakdown in negotiations.
"Regrettably, we have been unable to close the divide on some critical issues that we feel are essential to the immediate and long-term health of our game," Winnipeg Jets chairman Mark Chipman said in a statement released by the NHL. "While I sense there are some members of the players association that understand our perspective on these issues, clearly there are many that don't."
The sides are trying to avoid another lost season. The NHL became the first North American professional sports league to cancel a full year because of a labor dispute back in 2005. The deal reached then was in place until this September, and the lockout was enacted on Sept. 16 after that agreement expired.
"While trust was built and progress was made along the way, unfortunately, our proposal was rejected by the Union's leadership," Toronto Maple Leafs minority owner Larry Tanenbaum said in a statement. "My love for the game is only superseded by my commitment to our fans, and I hold out hope we can soon join with our players and return the game back to its rightful place on the ice.
All games through Dec. 14, along with the New Year's Day Winter Classic and the All-Star game, have been wiped off the schedule. More cancellations could be coming within days.
"I am very disappointed and disillusioned," Tanenbaum said. "Had I not experienced this process myself, I might not have believed it."