NHL season hangs on union's response

TORONTO -- The NHL and NHLPA will meet Thursday in the so-called center of the hockey universe, where it's hoped steps are taken to get closer to the league playing again.

How the NHLPA responds to the league's newest offer will have a critical impact on where this process goes.

If the union is willing to counter while working off the framework the NHL provided Tuesday, there is a reasonable expectation the real negotiations have begun -- finally -- and we could have hockey this season.

If the NHLPA responds by completely rejecting the offer, we're in for a deep freeze.

It's pretty clear from Donald Fehr's letter to players Tuesday night, obtained by TSN's Bob McKenzie, that the union boss isn't overly thrilled with the NHL's latest offer, although he does admit the league has taken a step forward.

My sense is that the league's top dogs were anxious about how Fehr would spin the offer to his membership, which is why, in my opinion, the league took the unprecedented step Wednesday morning of publishing the entire proposal. It wasn't so much about fans being able to read it -- although that doesn't hurt in the PR war -- but really so that the 700-odd NHL players could view the league's original version and not just what they're being told by Fehr.

Mind you, not all players welcomed it.

San Jose Sharks center Logan Couture, playing in the Swiss League right now, responded to me via Twitter:

"@Logancouture: @Real_ESPNLeBrun I must have missed it, but I didn't catch the proposal in July on the website."

He certainly has a point there.

I think the league desperately wants to make the players understand what's on the table. I also think the league was concerned over some misinformation in some media circles regarding its offer, so it wanted the facts put out.

Of interest in Fehr's letter is that he questions the league's stance that Tuesday's offer maintains old definitions of hockey-related revenue. I was told the NHLPA was going to make a point of seeking clarification on this in Wednesday's scheduled conference call between the two sides.

That's still not the biggest issue, though. All along, this has been about the players wanting to protect current contracts and keep them whole. The NHL's proposed mechanism to keep those contracts whole early in the next collective bargaining agreement has already found a detractor in Fehr.

"The Players Share in subsequent years would be reduced so that this 'Make Whole' payment would be made," Fehr wrote to players. "It is players paying players, not owners paying players. That is, players are 'made whole' for reduced salaries in one year by reducing their salaries in later years."

No question that's going to be the biggest point of contention moving forward on this deal. Getting to a 50-50 HRR split overnight has obvious complications. Would the NHLPA counter by proposing the players start at 53 or 52 percent and phase down to a 50-50 split?

If I were Fehr and the players, I would find a way to work off the framework of this offer. If you want an 82-game season -- which means full salaries for players this season -- you have to shape your next proposal using this framework. It doesn't mean you can't try to change a number of things; that's the point of negotiating. But in my mind, any attempt to introduce a completely different framework this late in the process means there's no way of saving a full season.