A fourth straight day of NHL labour talks failed to bring the league and its locked-out players any closer to a deal that would put hockey back on the ice and save the season. In fact, the gap between the two parties might have become even wider on a failed Friday. Talks resume on Sunday.
After three consecutive and seemingly positive days of talks, discussions had turned sour when negotiations ended for the night. The players' union was under the impression it was nearer to an agreement with the league. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman disagreed.
"Gary made a comment [Thursday] that there is still a lot of work to do. I think, given today's session, there is still a lot of work to do," said Donald Fehr, the NHLPA chief. "We looked at some of the numbers on the various proposals and we thought we were much closer together on the structure of a deal than the suggestions were. They came back to us and said, 'No, we are very very far apart on the structure of the deal.'"
There were vocal disagreements at the end of the session, and the union team went back to its office to hold a conference call with the executive board and other players. The union is beginning to feel that the NHL isn't ready to make a deal now, even if the players were suddenly willing to accept the league's offer in full – which they are not.
"We talked back and forth a little bit, and at one point the question was asked: 'If the players would agree to everything that's in your financial proposal, what you're saying is you still won't make an agreement unless the players give up everything in all of the player-contracting rights in your proposal? The answer was, 'Yes, because that's what we want,'" Fehr said. "One wonders if that's really the case. How do you get there from here?
"Given where we are, we're going to reconvene internally [Saturday] morning and we'll come to grips with where we are and try to figure out what we'll do next. I don't know what will happen next."
Bettman declined to reveal what was discussed or where the disagreements lie. He also wouldn't characterise the mood of the talks.
"I am not going into the details of what takes place in the room," he said. "I really apologise but I do not think it would be constructive to the process. I don't want to either raise or lower expectations. I won't be happy until we get to the end result and that means we're playing again."
The union also fought to put out fires on Friday after a memo to players summarising Thursday's negotiations was leaked to the media. That led to suggestions that the NHLPA had not fully conveyed the owners' most recent proposal to its membership accurately or completely. Fehr shot down the report as false, if for no other reason that there were players present at the negotiations when the offer was put forward.
"Their proposal is made in front of players in the room who hear it," Fehr said. "It's made in front of staff who hear it, it's made in front of former players who hear it. They're on the phone talking to everybody on an ongoing basis afterward. Owners can't come to meetings when they want to hear stuff directly, but every single player can at the union's expense. Come hear it for himself, make the judgements, and all the rest of it."
Players made a pair of proposals Wednesday, and the NHL responded with one Thursday. No new official offers were exchanged Friday. The last of three sessions centred on the core economic issues keeping the sides apart, and it broke up after about two hours.
Bettman said the league was ready to continue talking as soon as the union wants.
"Whatever it takes. We're available," he said. "It's always better to be together and talk when there is something to talk about. I am not getting into the specifics. When you're in a process like this, you're really not watching the calendar. I'm not sure I can tell you what day it is."
The 55-day-old lockout has already caused the league to call off 327 regular-season games, including the New Year's Day Winter Classic in Michigan, and the NHL has said a full season won't be played. The league is in danger of having a lockout wipe out a full season for the second time in seven years.