NEW YORK (AP) Two days of marathon labor talks later, NHL owners and players were still working to reach a deal Thursday.
The mood had turned, however. Gone was some of the lightheartedness and rare optimism expressed earlier in the week and there were no joint statements by the two sides.
Representatives of the league and the players each said Wednesday’s long talks were “candid” and offered some sense of hope by announcing negotiations would resume later Thursday.
There is no doubt that work still needs to be done for a deal to be made that would save the hockey season.
“We had good, candid dialogue,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said early Thursday after nearly nine hours of talks at a Manhattan hotel. “There continue to be some critical open issues between the two parties, and we understand the union should be getting back to us (Thursday) on some of those issues.”
It isn’t known what progress has been made so far, but owners and players understand that an agreement must be reached soon if they hope to get the game back on the ice this season.
The players’ association was expected to have internal discussions Thursday morning before meeting with the NHL later in the day.
“We had a series of candid discussions. We will meet again tomorrow,” said Winnipeg Jets defenseman Ron Hainsey, who like Daly didn’t take any questions after the talks ended for the night.
Negotiations resumed a little after 2 p.m. Wednesday and proceeded in fits and starts as the league and the players’ association searched for an agreement. As they had the day before, talks went deep into the night, breaking two hours for dinner before finishing shortly before 1 a.m. Thursday.
Citing unidentified sources, The Canadian Press reported that the league – which wants a more even split of annual revenue with players – had increased its offer of a “make whole” payment to the players from $211 million to $300 million. The union had asked for $393 million. The catch, CP reported, is that the offer was tied to deals on other issues such as player contracting rights.
One point of contention is the length of a new contract, with owners looking for a 10-year pact, and players wanting a shorter term.
Owners often retreated to their room one floor above the location of the bargaining session and then took the elevator back down to get talks going again. Some of the joint sessions lasted only 15 minutes.
Cautious optimism emerged Tuesday in the first round of talks that kept NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on the outside along with union executive director Donald Fehr, while six owners and about 18 players talked inside. The positive feeling carried over into Wednesday morning when various team executives said they heard good reports during an NHL board of governors meeting.
Bettman spoke briefly after that, just before negotiations started again, and the sides remained silent the rest of the day while talks continued. The reemergence in a media workroom at the hotel of a podium with a lectern featuring the NHL shield sparked hope that some sort of announcement soon would be coming. Though it remained unoccupied for quite some time, the podium gained instant popularity on Twitter.
Bettman declined to take any questions earlier Wednesday when he stood at that podium. A ray of hope that a season-saving deal could be made emerged late Tuesday night after about eight hours of bargaining.
“We are pleased with the process that is ongoing, and out of respect for that process I don’t have anything else to say,” Bettman said.
Executives scurried on New York streets and hopped into cars after the two-hour board of governors meeting, some offering an opinion on the proceedings.
“We feel good about the information we got,” new Columbus Blue Jackets President John Davidson said.
Larry Tanenbaum of the Toronto Maple Leafs, one of the six owners participating in these negotiations, also painted an optimistic picture as he walked the few blocks back to the hotel hosting the meetings.
“We’re going to continue to talk up until we get a deal,” said Tanenbaum, who added there is more clarity on both sides where each group stands. “All I can say is as long as we’re talking we’re hopeful.”
If a breakthrough can be made soon, the delayed and shortened hockey season could get going quickly.
“I’ve always been hopeful there would be a season,” said Lou Lamoriello, the New Jersey Devils president and general manager. “Right now we just have to leave it in the hands of the people that are talking.”
The same negotiators participated in talks Wednesday, with minor tweaks to the large contingent of players.
Bargaining stretched on Tuesday night until about midnight, and it was clear progress was made when Daly stood side by side with union special counsel Steve Fehr and issued a rare joint status report.
The sides are trying to avoid another lost season. The NHL became the first North American professional sports league to cancel a full year because of a labor dispute back in 2005. The deal reached then was in place until this September, and the lockout was enacted on Sept. 16 after that agreement expired.
The lockout reached its 82nd day Thursday. The main issues are how to split revenue and how player contracts are set up. The league had more than $3 billion in revenue in the 2011-12 season, but an analysis by Forbes magazine recently showed a major gap between profitable teams and those that operate in the red.
All games through Dec. 14, along with the New Year’s Day Winter Classic and the All-Star game, have been wiped off the schedule so far.