NEW YORK — After a long night of talks, the NHL and the union returned to the bargaining table, but not for long.
The sides met at the league office today about three hours later than scheduled. The players’ association said it had been updating members on negotiations.
Players and union staff began arriving at NHL headquarters a little before 1 p.m., although executive director Donald Fehr wasn't with them. The group left the building about an hour later but expected to return later in the day.
With the lockout in its 110th day, both sides understand the urgency to save a shortened season. They have several key issues to work out — pensions and salary cap limits, among them.
Commissioner Gary Bettman has said a deal needs to be in place by next week so a 48-game season can begin Jan. 19. All games through Jan. 14 along with the All-Star game have been canceled, claiming more than 50 percent of the original schedule.
The sides met in small groups throughout the day Wednesday. They held a full bargaining session with a federal mediator at night that lasted nearly five hours and ended about 1 a.m. today.
The biggest detail to emerge was that Fehr remains executive director of the players’ association, which passed on its first chance to declare a disclaimer that would dissolve the union and turn it into a trade association.
Last month, players voted overwhelmingly to give its executive board the right to declare the disclaimer, but that permission expired at midnight Wednesday. The disclaimer would allow individual players to file antitrust lawsuits against the NHL. Fehr wouldn't address the issue, calling it an “internal matter.”
“The word disclaimer has yet to be uttered to us by the players’ association,” Bettman said. “It's not that it gets filed anywhere with a court or the NLRB. When you disclaim interest as a union, you notify the other side. We have not been notified and it's never been discussed, so there has been no disclaimer.”
It was believed the union wouldn't take action Wednesday if it saw progress. Neither side would characterize the talks or say if there was any movement toward common ground.
“There's been some progress but we're still apart on a number of issues,” Bettman said. “As long as the process continues I am hopeful.”
In a related move, the NHLPA filed a motion in federal court in New York on today seeking to dismiss the league's suit to have the lockout declared legal. The NHL sued the union in mid-December, figuring the players were about to submit their own complaint against the league and possibly break up their union to gain an upper hand.
But the union argued that the NHL is using this suit “to force the players to remain in a union. Not only is it virtually unheard of for an employer to insist on the unionization of its employees, it is also directly contradicted by the rights guaranteed to employees under ... the National Labor Relations Act.”
A deal can't be done without a resolution on pensions. Bettman called the pension plan a “very complicated issue.” A small group meeting on the pension issue was held Wednesday morning before the players’ association presented its offer.
“The number of variables and the number of issues that have to be addressed by people who carry the title actuary or pension lawyer are pretty numerous and it's pretty easy to get off track. That is something we understand is important to the players.”
The union's proposal Wednesday makes four offers between the sides since the NHL restarted negotiations today with a proposal. The league presented the players with a counteroffer Tuesday night in response to one the union made Monday.
Fehr believed an agreement on a players-funded pension had been reached before talks blew up in early December. That apparently wasn't the case, or the NHL has changed its offer regarding the pension in exchange for agreeing to other things the union wanted.
The salary-cap number for the second year of the deal — the 2013-14 season — hasn't been established, and it is another point of contention. The league is pushing for a $60 million cap, while the union wants it to be $65 million.
In return for the higher cap number players would be willing to forgo a cap on escrow.
“We talk about lots of things and we even had some philosophical discussions about why particular issues were important to each of us,” Bettman said. “That is part of the process.”
The NHL proposed in its first offer today that pension contributions come out of the players’ share of revenues, and $50 million of the league's make-whole payment of $300 million will be allocated and set aside to fund potential underfunding liabilities of the plan at the end of the collective bargaining agreement.
Last month, the NHL agreed to raise its make-whole offer of deferred payments from $211 million to $300 million as part of a proposed package that required the union to agree on three nonnegotiable points. Instead, the union accepted the raise in funds, but then made counterproposals on the issues the league stated had no wiggle room.
“As you might expect, the differences between us relate to the core economic issues which don't involve the share,” Fehr said of hockey-related revenue, which likely will be split 50-50.
The NHL is the only North American professional sports league to cancel a season because of a labor dispute, losing the 2004-05 campaign to a lockout. A 48-game season was played in 1995 after a lockout stretched into January.