NEW YORK -- They are pushing the boulder up the hill, be it ever so slowly. They may get to the top, but there is still a chance they slip and the rock rolls right over them on its way back to the bottom.
The NHL and NHLPA met for the third consecutive day on Thursday and continued to hammer away at each other in an attempt to end the 54-day-old lockout and get the players back on the ice.
The two sides have sat across from one another in meeting rooms for over 20 hours this week in the first substantial stretch of bargaining since last season.
"I don't really have much to say. We met with the players' association the last three days and we're planning on meeting again (today)," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. "But I'm not going to discuss the negotiations or the substance of what we're talking about. I really don't think that would be helpful for the process."
NHLPA executive director Don Fehr stayed on the same page as Bettman in terms of revealing any details.
"I'm not going to comment on the substance of the discussions at this stage," said Fehr. "I'm not going to characterize it except to say, as I have before, that it's always better when you're meeting than when you're not."
A source said late Thursday a deal was several days away -- if one was to be had at all. Progress has been slow and at times the talks have been halting. There has been no conclusion on any of the main sticking points; revenue sharing, contracting rights and the process of guaranteeing the players the full value of already-signed contracts despite a drop in their revenue share from 57 per cent to 50.
The bottom line is the two parties are still far apart in a number of areas. Yes, they are talking, but still not always in the same language.
"We have work to do and my hope is we can achieve getting a long-term fair agreement in place as quickly as possible so we can play hockey," said Bettman. "Every day that passes I think is critical for the game and our fans."
The union made two offers to the league on Wednesday, one on revenue sharing and another on the "make-whole" provision.
The league made counter-offers on both issues Thursday. A source said Thursday there is still "significant divide on major issues."
The union wants to increase the revenue sharing pot from the current $140 million to $250 million and it also wants to alter the qualifying criteria.
The NHLPA introduced a make-whole proposal based on a gradual reduction of the players' hockey related revenue from 57 per cent to 50 per cent over a three-year period, likely beginning at 54 per cent in Year 1 and sliding down to 50 in Year 3.
The NHL had asked the union to keep the time and place of meetings this week secret to prevent adding fuel to an already hot subject among the hockey media.
For two days the two sides met without the prying eyes of reporters. But on Thursday, frustrated with the slow flow of information, the media uncovered the location and descended upon it late in the afternoon.
The union, upon being alerted that the media were waiting outside, quickly agreed to make Fehr available. Once he spoke the league determined they would make Bettman available.
Both men greeted the media with jokes. Fehr suggested to the shivering group of about 10 reporters from New York, Winnipeg and Toronto, that they get different jobs.
Bettman wanted to know how his hidden lair was uncovered.
"How did you find us? You followed the players? Oooohhh. Who did you follow? You won't give up your sources?" said Bettman with a smile on his face.
The commissioner would not offer up a characterization of how far along the process had gone and whether it would soon result in the consummation of a deal.
"Collective bargaining is a process and it has peaks and valleys and ebbs and flows and it's very tough to handicap," said Bettman. "I don't know what Don said but the fact is we have a lot of work to do and we're working hard. We're in a series of meetings and we'll meet again (today) and hopefully it will lead us to the right place."
Fehr said evaluating the day's discussions wouldn't be responsible or accurate immediately following the session.
"There's a couple of reasons. But from my end -- anybody from the NHL can speak for themselves -- sometimes when you get into discussions, first of all you've got obligations to report to your constituency first," said the well-tenured labour leader. "The second thing is that you hear some things and you need to think about it and you need to work on it and you need to formulate an appropriate response. And sometimes that becomes more difficult if you've talked publicly about it before you've gone through the work."
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