The mood was both hopeful and wary in the dressing room after the local NHL players skated at a Boston rink on Thursday morning.
Once again Shawn Thornton, Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic and Tuukka Rask were there from the Bruins organization, and they were joined by Jay Pandalfo, Keith Yandle, Ryan Whitney and Brandon Yip among other skaters.
But all the NHL group wanted to know following the skate was just how close the NHL and NHLPA had moved after the second marathon negotiating session at the Westin Hotel in New York City. Clearly the two parties have inched closer together with the NHL bumping up the make whole money to 300 million and seeking a 10-year CBA while also relenting to previous player contract rules for free agency (27 years old and seven years of service) and arbitration.
Perhaps unsurprisingly many of the players didnt have a big issue with the 10-year commitment because it guarantees labor peace.
But the two sides are still at odds over the five-year term limits for contracts or seven years if a player signs with their current team and has been in that organization for at least four years and the 5 percent variance limit on year-to-year earnings within the contract. Perhaps even bumping it up to the six-year limit with potential eight year deals for players re-signing with their own would be enough to close the deal.
The players pension plan has also now entered the discussion where it wasnt even a talking point in previous discussions.
With all of that in mind the general sense from the players on Thursday was they better not mess this up. Hockey players are getting antsy with starting dates being thrown around and with the financial gap now under 100 million over the course of a long-term deal.
But they also know theyve previously thought these negotiations had turned the corner, and were sorely disappointed.
So theyre not making the same mistake this time.
Ill believe the season is starting when I see it, said one player.
Pandalfo joked that he needs to know if theres going to be a season or not, so the 37-year-old can decide whether hes going to retire or keep playing.
Lucic was hopeful after hearing some of the fine details, but also concerned after hearing that tempers had flared for both Sabres goalie Ryan Miller and Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs during the late night session. The militant Miller lost his cool during the negotiating session and Jacobs reportedly threatened to leave the table thereby ending the discussion.
The Bruins owner was reportedly talked into remaining at the table by his fellow owners in the negotiation session, and thats nothing but good news. But the rancor thats built up on both sides needs to disappear, and most of the parties involved seem to understand that.
We all have to remember not to bring emotion into it, and to simply treat it like a business negotiation. Thats what the owners are going to do, and were best served doing the same thing, said Lucic. Were definitely more encouraged and theres more optimism. They seem headed in the right direction.
But until a deal is done you have to be a little bit cautious. Its definitely a positive thing that it seems to be moving in the right direction. The anxiousness and the excitement are definitely there. Its tough to stay cautious because youre thinking about the what if questions if we do start the season. But you cant get too far ahead because weve already been let down in that sense.
The latest wrinkle: both NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr will be back involved in the process, and the players union has once again requested that federal mediators get involved in the discussion. Perhaps that could be a good thing now that the two sides have inched closer together, but the mediation discussion wont be broached until after both sides hold their Thursday afternoon meeting.
Perhaps they will find some sort of breakthrough common ground, and the NHL will be able to carry through with a plan to finalize a new CBA by the end of this week. The alternative should be frightening enough to anybody that loves the NHL or worships the game of hockey.
If things fall apart now the clock will truly start ticking loudly on cancelling the entire NHL season, more games will certainly be cancelled by the end of the week and the players will potentially risk losing moderate owners like Tampa Bays Jeff Vinik, Winnipegs Mark Chipman and Pittsburghs Ron Burkle.
That cant happen.
So hows this for a suggestion? Keep the hard-line, militant personalities on both sides out of the negotiating room. Keep Bettman and Fehr who have built tremendous ill will with the opposing group during these negotiations away from the talks until both sides have agreed in principle on every major topic. Theyre polarizing figures, and it seems that the mission of each side is to keep the others lead executive from getting any credit when a deal is completed. Keep the moderates together speaking until the two sides have finalized a deal and do it quickly as key voices on both sides start leaving New York City while a CBA crawls to completion.
Burkle reportedly said to those close to him hes not leaving New York City until hes got a CBA in place that saves the NHL season for fellow owners, the players, the fans and anybody else that has a stake in hockey.
Those are the kinds of personalities that are going to get this deal done. They need to fully take over the process before others can ruin it with the same old dysfunctional NHL attitude, or with a fit of selfish pique that will force everyone to walk away.