By all accounts the NHLPA members and negotiating team present in New York City knew that things might be different on Saturday.
The things they were hearing from federal mediator Scot Beckenbaugh were promising enough and -- for the first time in the four-month NHL lockout quagmire -- NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly were ambling over to the players hotel for face-to-face discussions.
As Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference put it, it appeared something had finally changed with the NHLs tone and delivery in negotiations.
It appeared that, finally, a deal might be in the offing.
After all, the proposal that was finally accepted by both the NHL and NHLPA as a tentative framework for their Collective Bargaining Agreement wasnt much different from the Dec. 6 proposal -- the same document Bettman shot down in a 30-minute media rampage while angrily shaking and spitting verbal bullets all over the hotel ballroom press conference floor.
None of the previous negative vibes were present once the two parties got down to business yesterday in a negotiating session that lasted nearly 17 hours, and didnt end until shortly before 5 a.m. on Sunday morning.
"There was good indication that they wanted it done that day and the time finally came when our thresholds finally met up with each other," Ference told CSNNE.com. "Through the day there were signals that things were different just given the progress and the way the mediation was going. We had our hopes up a few times in the past, but this just a totally different atmosphere. The atmosphere was great once the ball got rolling during the day, compared to some pretty tedious days before it."
Ference was the only Bruins representative during the last weeks talks between the NHL and NHLPA, and he said the possibility of losing the entire 2012-13 season was very real in his mind. Players were cautiously optimistic, but unsure if the NHL owners would once again pull the pin on the season as they did in 2004-05.
Perhaps it was never more real than when talks broke down on Thursday.
Amid the NHLPA accusing the NHL of attempting to deceive them by changing the language concerning Hockey Related Revenue, both sides broke off discussions. Then they needed to be cajoled back to the bargaining table by Federal Mediator Scot Beckenbaugh in a series of shuttle negotiations going back-and-forth from league to players.
It started with Beckenbaugh hoofing it by foot back-and-forth between the NHL offices on Fifth Avenue and the Manhattan hotel the NHLPA was holed up in. Then around 1 p.m. the NHL and NHLPA both agreed to meet after things were back headed in the right direction.
There was agreement on some major issues: The salary cap for 2013-14 would be 64.3 million and the players would sign off on a 10-year CBA with an opt-out clause after eight years. There was still skepticism because things had been close like they were on Saturday several times before.
It was a big package of stuff that basically wasnt solved until the very end. It wasnt like there was one thing hanging over everybodys head, Ference said. Everything was working off each other. But the pension was huge for us, especially for the young guys coming into the system. Thats something that will help them a lot.
I think there will be a lot of happy GMs around the league that we stuck our neck out for the 64.3 million cap ceiling in 2013-14. It will make their jobs a lot easier. The fans in the big hockey markets will be happy about that because there would be some good players that would have to leave town if it was a lot lower. But in saying that every issue was big and both sides had to give a little to get things done.
But this time definitely seemed a little different with the urgency of a cancelled season being felt by both the players and the league. Neither wanted to be the side to blame if another entire NHL campaign was wiped out because of labor issues. That was going to happen at the end of next week if the two sides werent closing a deal.
I could guess for a long time about what changed in negotiations. Not disclaiming for us at the last minute was a very difficult decision," Ference said. "There was a lot of talk about whether to go through with the disclaimer of interest or not on Wednesday. But there were a few of us that had a glimmer of hope about negotiations over those next few days, and going ahead with the disclaimer would have turned everything quite chaotic.
So it was a key decision that opened up the opportunity to do something. But theres also only a certain window of time to get a 48-52 game season in. The timing of that obviously plays into it. There were also probably some very motivated owners on the other side that wanted to play as much as the players did. Both sides were willing enough to show the mediator their cards when they hadnt before. Once momentum was put behind using the federal mediator as a vehicle, it definitely changed the game.
There is still fine print to go over, and the CBA has to be ratified by both the NHLPA membership and the NHL Board of Governors. That shouldnt be a problem: Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr wouldnt have stood side-by-side to announce the lockout was over if they didnt have full confidence their constituents would endorse the document overwhelmingly.
The potential exists for a regular season between 48-52 games that could begin as soon as Jan. 15 after a brief training camp period. All of that wont be firmed up until Monday after all parties have had a chance to catch up on their sleep.
But to players like Ference, they are deeply thankful they can go back to playing the game they love, repaying the ardent fans that will eventually return after four months of negativity, vitriol, greed and ugliness have sullied a great sport.
We did the best we could without destroying the sport entirely and without selling out the kids that havent even been drafted yet but will play under this CBA, Ference said. Nobody is going to deny that its awful. The negativity directed at our sport is disheartening. It sucks. It really sucks for fans to have to go through it and hearing the posturing. At the end of it all its just a sigh of relief that you can get back to the good parts of the game and the positive stuff. It sucks to hear negative things about a good group of guys that really do love the game, but are being locked out of the game they love. We couldnt control that. You understand the other side of it and the pressure points needed in negotiations. But we always just wanted to play.
As a player and as a fan, you dont want to even imagine that side of the sport even exists. But the reality is that its a huge business and its something that has to be done. You cant just pull numbers out of a hat or split it right down the middle and not have it affect people. It takes willing partners to get something done at an acceptable level. You cant just look at it from your own personal level either. You cant just say Well, I want to play and sell out a lot of young guys that arent even in the league yet.
Losing another entire season would have been unthinkable and it would have permanently damaged the NHL brand. Instead both the NHL and NHLPA were able to forge an agreement when they dropped their pretense, and locked themselves into a hotel room until an agreement was finalized.
Now the NHL will have a decade of labor peace and growth where all of the chatter will be centered on one-timers, hockey fights and hat tricks rather than Hockey Related Revenue, escrow and salary variance. Thats the only thing that will win back a fan base that desperately wants to love the NHL, if only the league and players will simply love them back.
It may take some time, but what a wonderful hockey world that will be.