By Ira Podell
---- — NEW YORK (AP) — It took several hours on Thursday, but negotiators from the NHL and the players’ association found their way back to the bargaining table for the third consecutive day of talks aimed at ending the long lockout.
The union held internal discussions most of the day, while keeping in contact with the NHL, and the sides finally reconvened around 5 p.m.
Even with talks that lasted into the wee hours the previous two nights, a deal to start the delayed and shortened hockey season remained elusive. Optimism that emerged late Tuesday night seemed to have waned as conversations continued.
The dynamic of having owners and players at the bargaining table without NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and union leader Donald Fehr also lost its appeal. Fehr, along with his brother, players’ attorney Steve Fehr, were in Thursday’s session, as were NHL deputy commissioner Bill 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.
After marathon talks ended shortly before 1 a.m. Thursday, Daly had said that the league would wait to hear from the union regarding “some critical open issues” before getting back to the bargaining table.
In perhaps another sign that momentum had slowed, the union wanted federal mediators to 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.
Representatives of the league and the players each said Wednesday’s long talks were “candid.” Whether they were productive, too, remained to be seen.
“We had good, candid dialogue,” Daly said early Thursday after nearly nine hours of talks at a Manhattan hotel. “There continue to be some critical open issues between the two parties, and we understand the union should be getting back to us (Thursday) on some of those issues.”
Owners and players both understand that an agreement must be reached soon if they hope to get the game back on the ice this season.
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.
Citing unidentified sources, The Canadian Press reported that the league — which wants an even split of annual revenue with players — had increased its offer of a “make whole” payment to the players from $211 million to $300 million. The union had asked for $393 million. The catch, CP reported, is that the offer was tied to deals on other issues such as player contracting rights.
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 — perhaps five years. The league also is seeking to limit the length of individual player contracts to five years.
Owners often retreated to their room one floor above the location of the bargaining session and then took the elevator back down to get talks going again. Some of the joint sessions lasted only 15 minutes.
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.
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.
The lockout reached its 82nd day Thursday. 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 so far.