Past the Midnight Hour
NEW YORK--It was a bit disappointing. Like Y2K. Or the Comet Kohoutek. Or Bill Caudill as a Blue Jay.
Maybe we expected too much. Maybe we expected midnight in New York to come with a clap of thunder to signify something momentous happening in the bargaining between locked out NHLers and league negotiators.
After all, for weeks we'd been talking about a Jan. 2 deadline, a looming midnight deadline, by which the players would have to decide whether or not to mimick their NBA brethren and effectively dissolve their union as a way to try and use legal leverage to force a settlement. It's called a disclaimer of interest, and when the talks broke off early Thursday morning at about 1 a.m., the media covering these talks were eager to find out if such a disclaimer had been filed.
Don Fehr, head of the NHLPA, emerged first and refused to say whether there had or had not been a file of disclaimer, which was rather odd.
No such problem with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
"The word disclaimer has yet to be uttered to us by the players association," said a weary Bettman. "We have not been notified."
So much for all the buildup and fuss. One supposes that either the union never intended to use the strategy, or decided not to after three days of somewhat productive talks with Bettman and Co. For now, anyways, it's off the table, as the players would have to go back to their membership and ask for renewed permission for the executive committee to go down that path.
So where does that leave us?
Still without a deal. As Wednesday turned into Thursday, however, there were some interesting bits and pieces.
For starters, federal mediator Scot Beckenbaugh was involved on Wednesday, and apparently has been involved all week, although neither side had previousy mentioned it. Beckenbaugh has asked the two sides to meet at 10 a.m. on Thursday - Fehr for some reason declined to even confirm that - to push on, with Bettman reporting "some progress" and Fehr saying the "parties have moved closer" on some issues.
"It's sort of like if you have a river to cross, you either have to build a bridge or you have to do something else, if you're going to cross the river," said a tired-looking Fehr.
Whatever that meant.
While the issue of player pensions was the big issue on Tuesday, Wednesday the focus apparently turned to the issue of where the salary cap would be set next season after a $70 million cap was used to finish off this year.
The league wants a floor of $44 million for smaller market teams and a cap of $60 million for 2013-14. The players want the cap to be $65 million, even though it would create larger escrow payments, and its now believed the players haven't asked for a cap on escrow.
The league doesn't want the cap to go to $65 million because it would raise the floor to $49 million, higher than some teams can handle.
The league has already apparently agreed to two amnesty buyouts, rather than one, which is a small victory for the players. Those buyouts wouldn't count against the cap and would allow for more movement in the system.
The pension issue remains unresolved. The two sides have, however, apparently come to a meeting of the minds on the so-called variance issue, which is how much a salary can vary year to year within a single contract. The NHL wants to put a halt to the the "back-diving" contracts, and now may be will to go higher on the variance, probably to 20 per cent to meet the union's request.
So there are small bits of progress, but still some medium-sized mountains to cover.
Nobody has yet walked away. Nobody has yet turned to the court system. Both could theoretically still happen, but the fact they have not is what passes for progress in this drawn-out labour dispute.