TORONTO -- They talked for a few hours until Gary Bettman cleared his throat and got to the bones of the issue: Are the players willing to bargain on the economic issues of today's NHL?
It could just as easily have been Don Fehr asking Bettman if he was willing to move off his position but the commish asked first.
Fehr took the question under advisement and the two sides broke apart for the day with more talks scheduled for today. What is becoming increasingly clear is the NHL and its union agree they are far apart and can't decide if they are too distant to begin negotiating or if there is an opening for dialogue.
"There's no sense sitting in a room if no one is going to say anything. We need to find out if we have anything to talk about," said one source involved in the negotiations.
The league and the union were scheduled to talk in a large group on Wednesday afternoon. Instead, a small group including Bettman, deputy commissioner Bill Daly, Fehr and his brother Steve Fehr (who's the union's No. 2 man) held a two-on-two meeting. According to NHLPA sources, "real issues were discussed."
After the meeting, the two sides elected to forego their scheduled afternoon session but will reconvene today at the NHLPA's downtown Toronto offices.
"We met and discussed some substantive issues plus procedurally what do we do next. What do the groups look like and how do we configure this and all the rest of it. We had a discussion designed to make sure we go forward," said Don Fehr. "After some thought, the suggestion was that we reconvene here (today) to talk about core economics and player contracting issues."
It's believed the NHLPA will respond to some of the contracting issues such as salary arbitration today but the age and service required to reach free agency won't be on the table.
"We like the age of free agency where it is," said Jets player rep Ron Hainsey.
Fehr characterized the process as "business-like," and didn't put any weight on the afternoon session being scrubbed.
"It's an ordinary process in bargaining. This happens," said Fehr. "I will say, you could probably observe there is some level of frustration between the parties but that doesn't surprise me."
Fehr was asked what specific topics were reviewed.
"We spent some time discussing the core economic issues but that's all I want to say right now," he said.
The CBA expires on Sept. 15 and the owners have promised to lock out the players if no deal is reached by then. Bettman, who has already overseen one lost season on his watch, doesn't want to miss a substantial number of games this season. But he also needs to fix some of his league's economic issues, namely the disparity between the haves and have-nots in the NHL. A handful of teams make a lot of money, a whole bunch of teams hover around the poverty line and a few teams are absolutely bleeding cash right now.
Bettman wants to take a cut from the players and reduce salary costs to help lower-end teams balance their budgets.
Fehr and the union don't want to entertain salary rollbacks but have conceded there are economic issues in the game and they are willing to help. Firstly, however, they want the owners to help themselves with increased revenue sharing. Secondly, they have proposed a system whereby they would allow owners to take the bulk of future earnings from any growth in league revenues over the next three years.
That system doesn't entirely work for the owners because it's based on the premise of increased revenue that can't be guaranteed.
Still, Bettman has appeared eager to delve into the economics and look for a solution that may move closer to the middle of what both parties have suggested. That's what he asked about on Wednesday and is hoping to get an answer today.
There is beginning to be talk on the fringes of these negotiations about a system that would see the players' share of revenue reduced while at the same time honouring current contracts and avoiding any salary rollbacks.
The percentage reduction would be graduated and sliding towards a 50-50 split but would require a long-term deal to get the league where it wants to go while allowing the players to keep the money they've already agreed to with ownership.
Creative concepts such as this can be discussed and worked on if the two sides can begin to bargain on economic issues. But if they're both stuck on staying where they are, one can expect a lot more afternoons like Wednesday where silence ruled the boardroom.
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THE players want $1.91 billion in 2012-13, $1.98 billion in 2013-14 and $2.12 billion in 2014-15 as their share of league revenues to be allocated towards salaries. Those numbers represent raises of two, four and six per cent from the 57 per cent share, or $1.87 billion, the players got as their slice of the $3.3 billion of league revenue in 2011-12.
The owners want to reduce the players' share to 46 per cent from 57 per cent.