Debate: Lack of disclaimer means progress

Live from New York, Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun discuss -- what else? -- the latest news about the lockout. Go!

BURNSIDE: Well, my friend, it’s early Jan. 3 and it looks like the NHL’s owners and players, and any fans still hanging around on Day 110 of the NHL lockout, managed to dodge a bullet after the longest bargaining session of the week carried from Wednesday evening into Thursday morning. After much debate and speculation about what might happen by midnight Wednesday, it turns out the NHLPA’s self-imposed deadline to file a disclaimer of interest with the NHL and thereby dissolve the union and potentially derail the negotiations passed without being filed, and the two sides continued to talk until close to 1 a.m. In fact, commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters in an early-morning news conference that the term “disclaimer” has never been uttered during negotiations this week. It doesn’t mean the players’ association can’t revisit the strategy, but the fact it didn’t happen reinforces the notion that the two sides continue to edge themselves closer to a deal that would see hockey resume in the next couple of weeks. Bettman, a little more forthcoming than NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, said as much: “There’s been some progress, but we’re still apart on a number of issues. But as long as the process continues, I am hopeful.” One of the surprises of the evening was the revelation that a federal mediator, Scot Beckenbaugh, has been directing the talks this week and has asked both sides to return to the table at 10 a.m. Thursday.

LeBRUN: Got to hand it to those federal mediators, they haven’t been dissuaded by their failed efforts on their two previous attempts in this lockout to bring these two jilted hockey sides together. But, certainly, the big news of the night was the NHLPA’s executive board not filing its disclaimer. Sources were clear in telling me that the NHLPA will very much try to seek out authorization once again for filing a disclaiming -- via another player vote -- if there’s no deal in place "very soon." In other words, the NHLPA didn’t use its big hammer Wednesday night, in the hope of trying to get past these final few hurdles in a deal, but that gesture of goodwill has a time limit. Still, it tells me that the players feel there has been enough traction in talks this week that a deal is doable.

BURNSIDE: It’s interesting how this has played out the past few days. There were some early signals Wednesday evening that things weren’t going all that well, yet the two sides continued to work back and forth on a number of issues and kept going until about 1 a.m. I thought Gary Bettman’s acknowledgment that the two sides even had some philosophical discussions about why some issues were important to each side. It’s clear there are outstanding issues with the funding of the players’ pension fund, but Bettman acknowledged that it was important to the players and that they were trying to work through it. The other big issue -- and it might well be the biggest outstanding issue as the two sides prepare to return to the table later Thursday morning -- is the 2013-14 salary cap. That is going to loom large, especially as the clock continues to tick both toward the NHL’s Jan. 11 deadline to get a deal done in order to have games on the ice by Jan. 19 and, as you point out, the potential re-emergence of the disclaimer of interest. How do you think this issue sorts itself out? Or does it?

LeBRUN: The first reaction I got from a player last Friday when details surfaced about the NHL’s new proposal was that the $60 million cap for Year 2 would be a non-starter, too dramatic a fall in their mind from the $70.2 million cap in Year 1. And that sentiment hasn’t changed less than a week later from the players’ perspective. The NHLPA has suggested going instead to $65 million, feeling that it’s important for its players who are free agents next summer to have a bit more flexibility in the market place with teams having a bit more money to spend. But the NHL is concerned about the payroll floor rising; they want to keep it where it’s slated to be at. I believe the NHLPA would be willing to keep the payroll floor where it is for Year 2 but simply raise the cap limit to $65 million. But the NHL doesn’t want the payroll range to exceed $16 million, citing reasons of competitive balance. The league, according to sources, also reminded the players that a higher cap means higher escrow for players. Either way, both sides are really digging in on this Year 2 cap issue, and it’s the one that might make or break the deal.

BURNSIDE: Maybe it’s just me, but if you’re $5 million apart on next season’s cap isn’t the middle ground, oh, somewhere in the middle maybe at the $62 million to $63 million mark? Like the pension issue, it’s hard to imagine that next season’s cap is the one element that will keep a deal from happening. In some ways this is like the impending birth of a baby. Everyone generally wants the blessed event to happen more quickly than nature has in mind. The emergence of this new collective bargaining agreement is definitely following its own timetable and there remains a sense that this isn’t going to get done in a day or two, but maybe four or five. Still, you have to believe the threat of losing a second season in the past eight years is driving the process forward, regardless of the glacial pace. At this stage, some pace is better than no pace, agreed?

LeBRUN: Yes, my sense is they get a deal done over the next few days. I just think they’re too close in the overall picture to let the Year 2 cap, the pension or any other of the remaining issues prevent this from getting done and save a season. Too many people both in ownership ranks and the players side have told me they can’t live with the idea of not salvaging a season. Both sides understand the incredible damage that has already been caused by this lockout -- for my money, the most damaging work stoppage in NHL history -- and won’t stand for a deal not to get done. Wednesday night was the biggest threat to that not happening. The union dissolving would have thrown a major wrench in things. Now both sides are beyond that overbearing pressure point and can focus on getting a deal done without distractions. I’m betting they get it done.