By IRA PODELL/AP Sports Writer
NEW YORK (AP) – After more than two weeks apart and the hockey season hanging in the balance, the NHL and the players’ association are returning to the bargaining table Saturday after more than two weeks off.
The hope of a full season being played is already gone, and so is the popular New Year’s Day Winter Classic. If real progress isn’t made soon, the NHL could be looking at its second lost campaign since 2004.
For the first time since Oct. 18, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly and players’ association special counsel Steve Fehr agreed to meet at a secret location Saturday afternoon. The two have been talking by phone during the week and found enough common ground to get together face-to-face.
The lockout reached its 49th day Saturday, but at least there is a glimmer of optimism the season can be saved. There have already been 327 games canceled – including the outdoor Winter Classic that was wiped out Friday – and the NHL has said it will be impossible to play a full season.
The labor dispute, which began Sept. 16, forced all games from Oct. 11 through Nov. 30 to be called off. It isn’t known if any of those games will be rescheduled if a new deal is reached soon, but an NHL deadline has already passed that would have allowed for each team to play all 82 games. The season needed to start by Friday for that to happen, but the only hockey activity that day was the cancellation of the outdoor game at Michigan Stadium between the host Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs.
Losing that extravaganza, the biggest attraction on the regular-season schedule, was the biggest blow yet for the league and its players. The sides couldn’t even manage to get together since the previous bargaining session in which the players’ union countered a league offer with three proposals that were quickly rejected by the NHL.
Daly indicated that cancelling the Winter Classic doesn’t necessarily mean more games in the regular season – or the All-Star game – will be wiped out soon.
“I don’t foresee any further cancellation announcements in the near term,” Daly wrote in an email to The Associated Press on Friday.
In its most recent proposal, the NHL offered the union a 50-50 split of hockey-related revenue, which exceeded $3 billion last season, but that offer was rejected. The players responded with their three offers that went nowhere.
The NHL proposal has been pulled off the table because it was contingent on the league playing a complete season.
“Last week we had a proposal to save a full season on the table. That has since been withdrawn,” Daly told the AP. “That creates a different environment for talks.”
Players earned 57 percent of revenue in the recently expired contract, in which a salary cap was included for the first time. Owners sought to bring that number below 50 percent this time before their most recent offer. The union tried to get talks restarted last week without preconditions, but was turned away after refusing to agree to bargain off the framework of the league’s offer or issue another proposal with the league’s offer serving as a starting point.
There is a major divide between the sides over how to deal with existing player contracts. The union wants to ensure that those are all paid in full without affecting future player contracts. League Commissioner Gary Bettman expressed a willingness to discuss the “make whole” provisions on existing contracts, but only if the economic portions of the league’s offer are accepted first by the union.
It isn’t clear what, if any, preconditions were set before Saturday’s meeting.
This is the third lockout in Bettman’s tenure. The first forced a shortened 1994-95 season, and the second led to the cancellation of the entire 2004-05 season – the only time a major North American professional sports league lost a full season to a labor dispute.