NHL makes bold step to save season

Maybe it was the growing anger from the fan base.

Maybe it was the belief that the players weren't going to crack, at least not before another season was lost.

Maybe there was enough dissatisfaction within the ownership group as a second season in eight years seemed to be slipping away.

Or maybe it was just time for some common sense to enter a situation that had been entirely lacking from the outset.

The motivation is moot, so even the most cynical of observers have to credit the National Hockey League for taking what can only be viewed as a bold and potentially decisive step toward ending the month-old lockout and likely saving the 2012-13 season in its entirety.

The surprise offer delivered by the league to the players in Toronto Tuesday would see the players' share of hockey-related revenues drop from 57 percent to the 50-50 split observers have predicted would be the final settling place in a new labor deal.

Sources confirmed to ESPN.com that there is a mechanism in the league's proposal that would address the players' significant concern about not having current deals honored in a new CBA. The details aren't fully known, but there would be some sort of deferred payment that, assuming continued revenue growth, could negate the players' concerns.

There are other issues, such as capping the length of contracts at five years, that players will no doubt balk at, but there are other conciliatory moves. That include restoring arbitration rights and having free agency kick in at age 28 or after eight years of service, just one more year than was in the previous CBA.

The league is also proposing a bump to $200 million in revenue sharing, although it remains unknown if the two sides can come together on a structure for helping out needy franchises moving forward.

What the offer also includes is essentially a deadline, a line in the sand that could bring us quickly to the start of a full 82-game schedule that would start Nov. 2.

Commissioner Gary Bettman described Tuesday's offer as the league's best chance at getting a full season of hockey in the books.

It's not a take-it-or-leave-it offer, but it is one that comes with a sense of urgency for the players to digest and respond quickly.

One source familiar with the negotiations admitted some surprise that the league went "as far as it did," and suggested it is the kind of proposal that should sway public opinion, which had been decidedly anti-owner.

The source also suggested that if the players don't use the offer as the basis for a deal, then it will be a long, long time before there is NHL hockey again.

The players were scheduled to hold a conference call late Tuesday afternoon to discuss the proposal and how to respond.

And so that brings us to the moment of truth for the executive director of the NHLPA, Donald Fehr.

To date, you can argue whether the veteran sports union leader's presence hampered or helped the process. Certainly to this point, it's hard to imagine the players were in any different place than they were eight years ago, when they were locked out en route to losing the entire 2004-05 season, given the lack of anything approaching forward momentum this fall.

Who knows, maybe Fehr's presence was what prompted the NHL to make its offer when it had been publicly pressuring the union to come up with a new proposal on its own for the past several weeks.

Regardless, we are close to finding out what Fehr is all about and what his mandate really is.

If he's here to try and right the wrongs, real or perceived, of the last set of negotiations and preserve more than a 50-50 split of revenues, then Tuesday's olive branch of an offer from the league gets snapped in half.

If the union continues to hold to the position that the league is merely moving off its own outlandish first proposal from July and calling it compromise, perhaps traction will be hard to come by.

But if Fehr is here to guide a group of players who want, in general, to preserve what they are owed but who ultimately want to play hockey as quickly as possible, then Tuesday's offer should serve as a catalyst to a deal.

The players and Fehr consistently have said they only want a deal that is fair.

On the surface, at least, the owners' proposal seems to approach that threshold.