NEW YORK — Federal mediators are still involved in hockey's labor talks, and the NHL and the players’ association might soon be getting together again.
The sides met with mediators but not each other Wednesday. The mediators were back at it Thursday in an attempt to help broker a deal to save the season. The players’ association met with the mediator in the morning and planned to talk to him again in the afternoon following a lunch break.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The Associated Press in an email on Thursday that the league has had “some back and forth with the mediator.”
“Too early to say whether we will be meeting,” Daly wrote on the 89th day of the league's lockout. “Ultimately up to the mediator.”
No progress was reported Wednesday when the sides were in the same building in suburban New Jersey, but not in the same room. Mediators talked to each group separately and carried messages back and forth.
The league and union haven't met face-to-face in a week since talks fell apart a week ago on the third straight day of negotiations in New York. Federal mediators rejoined the conversation on Wednesday following two failed days last month, but still couldn't achieve a breakthrough.
“There were discussions of the various issues involved and how far apart we are and where we go from here,” players’ association executive director Donald Fehr said Wednesday. “I can't tell you that any progress was made.”
The latest round of talks was supposed to be held away from reporters and cameras, but the meeting location was quickly revealed. Both sides briefly made public statements in frustrated tones.
When the NHL agreed last week to increase its make-whole offer of deferred payments from $211 million to $300 million, it was part of a proposed package that required the union to agree on three nonnegotiable points. Instead, the players’ association accepted the raise in funds, but then made counterproposals on the issues the league stated had no wiggle room.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman then said that the offer was being pulled from the table. However, mediators asked the union on Wednesday, if that proposal was back in play, would the players take it or leave it?
“It wasn't much of a decision,” said Brendan Morrison, one of 13 players to attend Wednesday's talks. “I thought the gap would be closed much quicker, but it hasn't come to fruition yet, so we have to keep working.”
The offer wasn't actually resubmitted by the NHL. Neither side made any proposals Wednesday.
All games through Dec. 30 have been canceled, about 43 percent of the season, along with the New Year's Day Winter Classic and the All-Star game.
After talks ended last Thursday, Fehr began the first of his two news conferences that day by proclaiming he believed the sides had agreements on such issues as actual dollars and a players-funded pension plan, and then returned moments later to reveal the NHL rejected everything his side offered.
The 2004-05 season was lost completely, resulting in the players’ association accepting a deal that included a salary cap for the first time. While no such major philosophical disputes exist in these negotiations, the sides still aren't ready to come to an agreement.
“I never thought the issues were as big as they were back in ‘04-05,” Morrison said Wednesday. “Apparently, I was wrong.”
A 48-game season was played in 1995 after a lockout stretched into January. Bettman said he wouldn't have a shorter season than that.
The NHL wants to limit personal player contracts to five years, seven for a club to re-sign its own player and has elevated the issue to the highest level of importance. The union countered with an offer of an eight-year maximum length with the variable in salary being no greater than a 25 percent difference between the highest-paid year of the deal and the lowest.
The other sticking points the NHL demanded of the players are a 10-year term on the new agreement, with a mutual opt-out option after eight years, and no compliance buyouts or caps on escrow in the transition phase to the new structure. The union presented an offer of an eight-year deal with a reopener after six.