TORONTO -- Negotiations had already hit a wall in the ongoing hockey labor fight, and now the NHL has suggested the sides take an official two-week break before getting back to the bargaining table.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman floated the idea of a break to players' association executive director Donald Fehr. The union hasn't responded to the league yet, but the players maintained their position on Thursday night that they are ready and willing to meet at any time, and the only way to reach a deal to end the long lockout is to keep talking and negotiating.
"Gary suggested the possibility of a two-week moratorium," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly wrote in an email to The Associated Press on Thursday night. "I'm disappointed because we don't have a negotiating partner that has any genuine interest in reaching an agreement. Zero interest." The suggestion of a break was first reported by The Canadian Press on Thursday night.
With no new negotiations scheduled, and communication in general shutting down, the NHL appears to be getting closer to calling off more games, putting the entire hockey season in jeopardy.
"I hope not, but I'm more discouraged now than I have been at any point in the process," Daly said. "I responded to Don saying he did not know how to proceed from here." The players' association wants to keep the bargaining going, despite how frustrating recent sessions have been.
"Of course everyone on the players' side wants to reach an agreement," union special counsel Steve Fehr said in a statement Thursday night. "The players have offered the owners concessions worth about a billion dollars. What exactly have the owners offered the players? We believe that it is more likely that we will make progress if we meet than if we don't. So we are ready to meet.
"If indeed they do not want to meet, it will be at least the third time in the last three months that they have shut down the dialogue, saying they will not meet unless the players meet their preconditions. What does that tell you about their interest in resolving this?" The sides put on a push to make an agreement last week when they met over six consecutive days in New York. However, Friday's session ended with a heated exchange, and talks lasted only about an hour on Sunday.
The 61-day lockout has already claimed 327 regular-season games, including the New Year's Day outdoor Winter Classic, and more could be wiped out within a week. It is believed that an agreement would need to be in place by the end of next week for the season to get under way on Dec. 1.
That is starting to look unlikely because of the mere fact that the sides are unable to find common ground on the big issues keeping them apart. It is more than just finances preventing a deal. The disagreements over player contract terms have emerged as just big an impasse.
The NHL wants to limit contracts to five years, make rules to prohibit back-diving contracts the league feels circumvent the salary cap, keep players ineligible for unrestricted free agency until they are 28 or have eight years of professional service time, cut entry-level deals to two years, and make salary arbitration after five years.
A few hours into last Friday's session, negotiations broke down over the core economic differences that separate the sides.
A lockout wiped out the entire 2004-05 season.