A series of bizarre turns in negotiations between the NHL and its players on Thursday extinguished the optimism generated during direct talks between players and owners early this week and put the league in position to lose a season for the second time since 2004.
Commissioner Gary Bettman was red-faced and angry, and NHL Players' Assn. Executive Director Donald Fehr swiftly switched from declaring the sides were "close if not on top of one another" on major issues to saying he would tell fans, "It looks like this is not going to be resolved in the immediate future."
A process buoyed on Tuesday by the entrance of four owners new to the negotiations began to fracture Wednesday, when those owners got what they deemed a lukewarm response after offering to increase the transitional "make-whole" payment by $100 million. That was part of a package built around three positions on which the NHL won't budge: a 10-year collective bargaining agreement, a five-year cap on player contracts and compliance issues related to moving from the old labor deal to a new one.
"Term limits on player contracts is the hill we will die on," NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said.
Daly also said the league won't agree to buyouts or to players' new demand for limits on escrow payments because that money is outside the cap system and the agreed-upon 50-50 split of hockey-related revenue.
Fehr changed the meeting format on Thursday by asking to be included. Afterward, he sent the league a counteroffer that included limiting players' contracts to eight years and setting an eight-year term for the labor deal with an opt-out after six years.
The league, which had expected a yes-or-no response and not a new proposal, broke off the talks through a message Daly left on the voicemail of Steve Fehr, the NHLPA's special counsel. No new sessions are scheduled.
Donald Fehr, known for slow and deliberate negotiating tactics, suggested returning to federal mediation after a failed first attempt. Bettman said mediation "was of no value."
Fehr wouldn't identify the union's next step, but it has explored decertification, a strategy used by the NFL and NBA to apply pressure during labor talks by means of an antitrust lawsuit.
Bettman, who frequently became emotional during a news conference in New York, said the league had removed everything it had put on the table. That includes the "make whole" concept, leaving free agency at seven years, and a proposal that teams could re-sign their own players for seven years, similar to the NBA's Larry Bird clause.
"We are where we are, as horrible as it is," Bettman said.
Pittsburgh owner Ron Burkle, who participated in the talks this week, said the league "wanted to move quickly and decisively. We have all spent too much time without any real progress at the expense of our fans, our sponsors and the communities we serve I hope that going backwards does not prevent a deal."
Winnipeg owner Mark Chipman, whose team made a spectacular debut last season after moving north from Atlanta, said he was optimistic as late as Wednesday that a resolution could be found.
"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," he said. "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 NHL has canceled games through Dec. 14 and is certain to soon announce additional cancellations. Bettman said he wants "a season with integrity," which means a minimum of 48 games, but has no "drop-dead" date for a settlement. The 1994-95 season, cut to 48 games by a lockout, started on Jan. 20.