NEW YORK — If the NHL and the players’ association have run out of things to talk about, how can they ever find a way to make a deal to save the hockey season?
It is a question both sides seem to have trouble answering, and not because they are being guarded or coy. The lockout is in its third month, and there is no obvious path to progress.
There was a hint of optimism after the league and locked-out players met a few times, but the view quickly became bleak. After a one-day break, the sides met Sunday and that brief return to the table also turned badly quickly. They haven’t met — and have barely talked — since then.
Now NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has suggested to players’ association chief Donald Fehr that they take a two-week break from each other. If talking doesn’t work, it is possible that not talking will?
Frustration and a hint of anger have entered the equation. So perhaps a cooling-off period would make some sense before the sides agree to get together again.
“I think what you have seen is disappointment with where we find ourselves in the process,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Friday in an email to The Associated Press. “I don’t think it’s a case of personal animosity.”
That was one of two positive developments on Friday. Daly and NHLPA special counsel Steve Fehr had a brief conversation during the day and planned to talk again over the weekend to discuss the next steps for bargaining.
Any contact qualifies as good news as the lockout drags on.
Staying apart could pose a problem because time has become a major factor. All games through Nov. 30 have already been taken off the schedule, more cancellations are likely within a week, the Winter Classic has been wiped out, the All-Star game is the next big event in jeopardy, and the whole season could be lost, too, in the blink of an eye.
Daly said Thursday that he is more discouraged now that at any other point in the process.
Fehr and the union haven’t said whether or not they will agree to trial separation from the league. Publicly, the players have maintained the position that negotiations are the only way to work out differences and get a deal, and that they are willing to meet any time the NHL wants to.
“Of course everyone on the players’ side wants to reach an agreement,” Steve Fehr said 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?”
That came in response to Bettman’s suggestion of a break, and other comments by Daly about the tenor of the discussions between the sides.
“Gary suggested the possibility of a two-week moratorium,” Daly said. “I’m disappointed because we don’t have a negotiating partner that has any genuine interest in reaching an agreement. Zero interest.”
The NHL contends that the union has submitted the same proposal multiple times without moving in the league’s direction. The union says it has agreed to come down from receiving 57 percent of hockey-related revenues to a 50-50 split. The league wants that to go into effect in the first year of the agreement, while the union wants to get there gradually.
Back in 2005, after the entire 2004-05 season was lost to a lockout, the players’ association accepted a salary-cap system for the first time and feels it shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of the concessions now after league revenues reached a record high of over $3 billion last season.
“In ’04, the gap was huge,” said Rangers forward Brad Richards, who attended last week’s bargaining sessions. “Very frustrating. Didn’t expect to go on this long, didn’t need for it to go on this long. They want to create this view that we’re so far apart. Only one way to get a deal done. That’s the only tactic they know.”
Richards organized a benefit skate Friday to help in the relief efforts on Staten Island after Superstorm Sandy, and was joined by several of his teammates. Richards, who signed with the Rangers last offseason, and led them to the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference last postseason partnered with a high school team to organize “Skating for Sandy.”
This 62-day lockout has claimed 327 regular-season games, and hope of a new deal and the start of the already-shortened season — likely of 68 games per team — on Dec. 1 has been dashed.
Rangers forward Marian Gaborik sees little benefit in taking a break from negotiations.
“I don’t know what his mindset is,” he said about Bettman.
It is more than just finances preventing a deal. The disagreements over player contract terms have emerged as just as 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.
Players missed their third pay day of the season Thursday, and the clock is ticking toward more losses. The 2004-05 season was canceled in February. A lockout in 1995 ended in January, leading to a 48-game schedule.
“Different,” Gaborik said about this lockout. “The union is much stronger. We have a leader we believe in.”