Real negotiations have finally started

NEW YORK -- Shhhhh...

Amid the amazing buzz of a U.S. presidential election on Tuesday night, tucked away in a secret location in New York City, the NHL and NHL Players’ Association met for seven-plus hours and agreed to meet again on Wednesday.

More noticeable, though, was how quiet each side was after what has to be categorized as the most meaningful negotiating session to date.

Well, for starters, they actually stayed in a room and negotiated meaningfully, really, for the first time in this entire process.

The league put out a modest statement afterwards that simply said talks would continue the next day and the league would not characterize how Tuesday's meeting went. The NHLPA didn’t even put out a statement.

When it’s quiet, that’s usually when real work is finally getting done.

Let’s not carried away here. This thing can still go sideways and implode. It’s still too early to call.

But there was real talk Tuesday. Sources on both sides were tight-lipped and very much guarded in their optimism.

The lead-up to Tuesday’s meeting was talk that the league was willing to fund a sizeable part of the Make Whole provision -- honoring players’ existing contracts. Players I spoke with over the past few days wanted to know more details about the league’s new ideas -- or as one player said, "the fine print" -- before getting too excited.

But sources on both sides said that revenue sharing and player contract issues were the focus of Tuesday's meeting and discussion of the Make Whole provision was shelved until Wednesday.

As NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr pointed out before the meeting Tuesday, even if there’s an agreement eventually on the Make Whole provision, there are still many other issues that concern the NHLPA.

My sense is that the NHLPA had a message for the league in Tuesday’s meeting: since the players are willing to give a huge concession by going down from 57 percent of hockey-related revenue in the last CBA to a 50-50 split in the proposed new agreement, there wasn’t much of an appetite to give up too much on the systemic player contract issues.

The league’s demands of limiting player contract to five years, for example, might be too much to swallow for the NHLPA. And I think when push comes to shove on the league side, that’s not the kind of issue that should stop a deal from happening.

So there’s still work to be done here, but Tuesday has to be seen moderately as a decent first step.

Why the sudden urgency? I believe there was pressure from constituents on both sides to stop the constant posturing and get down to brass tacks.

Owners want NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to get a deal done yesterday. These aren’t the same owners that were willing to scrap an entire season in 2004-05. These owners want back on the ice. They understand the damage to the business if they’re foolish enough to scrap two seasons in eight years.

Similarly, agents and players on the NHLPA side have communicated to Fehr over the past week their utmost desire to try and get a deal done as the HRR pot shrinks with each passing day, and with it the players’ share.

Time is of the essence to preserve as valid a season as possible. If there’s enough traction this week and somehow a new CBA gets done over the next 2-3 weeks, you can still have perhaps 70 games or so.

A source told ESPN.com that the league internally had a meeting Tuesday morning to go over scheduling possibilities, just in case labor talks did indeed produce a new deal over the next few weeks. Makes sense; the league needs to be prepared for every scenario.

Many have pointed to Nov. 23 as a possibility for a season start given that it was supposed to be NBC’s start for games to be televised. Others look at Dec. 1 as a decent target.

Fact is, that is putting the cart in front of the horse.

One meaningful day doesn’t mean the end. There is still lots of ground to cover here, folks. But at least they actually met. And stayed. And talked.

Now we need more of that.