The bid to jump start NHL labor negotiations appears to have been a success.
Union president Trevor Linden and NHL board of directors chairman Harley Hotchkiss spoke yesterday at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, and the sides are planning another meeting in an effort to save the season.
The session lasted about five hours, including several breaks so each three-man negotiating group could huddle. It was just the third time the league and its players have had face-to-face talks in the four months since the lockout was imposed Sept. 15.
“We engaged in good dialogue today and will continue our discussions in the near future,” Linden said. “We will not make any further comment at this time.”
More than half of the regular season — 662 of 1,230 games through yesterday — has been wiped out so far, plus the All-Star game.
If yesterday’s meeting does represent a key step forward in the negotiations, it might be worth noting who was not present: NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and union chief Bob Goodenow.
Linden reached out to the owners and invited Hotchkiss to talk. The center for the Vancouver Canucks hoped that by holding talks without the two leaders, some of the acrimony could be removed from the negotiating process.
“We credit Trevor Linden’s initiative in requesting this session, which was informal, open and professional and which resulted in a constructive exchange of viewpoints,” Hotchkiss said.
NHL chief legal officer Bill Daly joined Hotchkiss and outside counsel Bob Batterman in representing the NHL; Linden, NHLPA senior director Ted Saskin, and outside counsel John McCambridge were there for the players.
Linden didn’t have a new proposal, and he wasn’t looking for attention. Indeed, it wasn’t until late Tuesday that word filtered out where the meeting would be.
“The parties had a good, candid dialogue, and we intend to talk again,” Daly said. “Out of respect for the process, we have no further comment at this time.”
These were the first talks since Dec. 14. That was when the sides broke three months of silence by sitting down for the second time in six days. But any optimism was lost quickly.
The players presented a proposal that offered an immediate 24 percent rollback on all existing contracts, but owners rejected the plan, saying it didn’t provide cost certainty.
The NHL presented a counterproposal, which was turned down as soon as the players’ association saw that the offer included a salary cap.
Since then, other than rhetoric, there had been silence.
If the next round of talks doesn’t move the sides to a settlement, the season probably would be lost. That would mean the Stanley Cup wouldn’t be awarded for the first time since 1919, when a flu epidemic canceled the final series between Seattle and Montreal.
No major North American sports league has missed an entire season because of a labor dispute.