TORONTO - After a lockout spanning almost nine weeks, the only thing the NHL and NHL Players' Association are talking about is taking a break.
Commissioner Gary Bettman has suggested placing a two-week moratorium on stalled collective bargaining negotiations, multiple sources told The Canadian Press on Thursday night. The offer came after Bettman received a phone call from Donald Fehr on Wednesday in which the NHLPA executive director said he didn't know how the sides could proceed from their current stalemate.
Rather than providing an immediate answer, Fehr told Bettman he would need to bounce the idea off his membership before responding. The union has repeatedly taken the position that it would prefer to meet rather than having breaks during the labour dispute—and suggested again Thursday it will continue to favour that position.
"We believe that it is more likely that we will make progress if we meet than if we don't," NHLPA special counsel Steve Fehr said in a statement. "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 potential freeze comes with talks already having fallen silent after a busy stretch of meetings last week in New York. By the time negotiations broke off last Sunday, it was clear that distrust and some bad feelings had made their way into the bargaining room.
The sides have been unable to agree on proposed changes to player contract rights and how to share revenue, and will also need to sort out how they pay for the damage of a lockout that reached 62 days on Friday.
Pessimism has grown while losses have started to mount. On Thursday, players missed their third paycheque of the season while the league moved closer to making another round of game cancellations, prompting some to suggest the entire year could be in danger.
Asked about that possibility on Thursday morning, deputy commissioner Bill Daly replied: "I hope not."
"But I'm more discouraged now than I have been at any point in the process," Daly added.
The NHL is expected to start wiping games beyond Nov. 30 off the schedule early next week. There had previously been hope for a shortened 68-game season starting Dec. 1, but that now appears to be gone.
In total, the lockout has already forced the cancellation of 327 games, including the Winter Classic between the Maple Leafs and Red Wings at Michigan Stadium. The league's other big mid-season event—the Jan. 27 all-star game at Nationwide Arena in Columbus—is also expected to be formally cancelled in the near future.
Earlier this week, Steve Fehr indicated that he thought a new CBA could be finalized soon after a breakthrough was made in negotiations.
"One thing Bill Daly and I agree upon is that when the moment is right the deal could be done very quickly," he said Monday. "One days, three days or whatever."
It will likely be much longer before real traction starts being made in negotiations.
Instead, the sides will continue inching closer to a make-or-break moment. The 2004-05 season was cancelled by Bettman on Feb. 16, but it's strongly believed the league wouldn't put the decision off that long if the 2012-13 season was to meet the same fate.
A deal that saved a 48-game season following the 1994-95 lockout was signed on Jan. 11.
The NHL is currently enduring its fourth work stoppage in the past two decades. The league is coming off a season where it generated a record US$3.3-billion in revenue.