The NHL put the course of ongoing labor negotiations back in the hands of the players' association, and left union head Donald Fehr with "some things to consider" Friday night.
A bigger problem might be a wider gap between the sides than the players thought.
After three seemingly positive days of talks, things went a bit sour Friday night when negotiations ended for the day. The union was under the impression the numbers suggested they were closer to an agreement. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman disagreed.
"Gary made a comment (Thursday) that there is still a lot of work to do. I think, given today's session, there is still a lot of work to do," Fehr said. "We looked at some of the numbers on the various proposals and we thought we were much closer together on the structure of a deal than the suggestions were. They came back to us and said, 'No, we are very very far apart on the structure of the deal.'"
There were vocal disagreements at the end of the session, and the union team went back to its office to hold a conference call with the executive board and other players. The union is beginning to feel that the NHL isn't ready to make a deal now, even if the players were suddenly willing to accept the league's offer in full — which they are not.
"We talked back and forth a little bit, and at one point the question was asked: 'If the players would agree to everything that's in your financial proposal, what you're saying is you still won't make an agreement unless the players give up everything in all of the player-contracting rights in your proposal? The answer was, 'Yes, because that's what we want.'
"One wonders if that's really the case. How do you get there from here? Given where we are, we're going to reconvene internally (Saturday) morning and we'll come to grips with where we are and try to figure out what we'll do next. I don't know what will happen next."
Fehr said he expects the sides will get back together Saturday, but clearly there is no way to gauge in advance what the feeling in the room will be.
The union also fought to put out internal fires on Friday after a memo to players summarizing Thursday's negotiations was leaked to the media. That led to suggestions that the players' association didn't fully convey the owner's most recent proposal to its membership accurately or completely.
Fehr sternly shot down the report as false, if for no other reason that there were players present at the negotiations when the offer was put forward.
"Their proposal is made in front of players in the room who hear it," Fehr said. "It's made in front of staff who hear it, it's made in front of former players who hear it. They're on the phone talking to everybody on an ongoing basis afterward.
"Owners can't come to meetings when they want to to hear stuff directly, but every single player can at the union's expense. Come hear it for himself, make the judgments, and all the rest of it."
Ron Hainsey, the player representative for the Winnipeg Jets, backed up Fehr's assertion in full.
"Every player is welcome in every meeting," the defenseman said. "Every player has the ability to get in touch with Don via phone, via email, or get in touch with me or any member of the negotiating committee via phone, via email. This notion that something was hidden over the past 24 or 48 hours is totally inaccurate. We feel that this should put this issue to rest."
Players made a pair of proposals Wednesday, and the NHL responded with one Thursday. No new official offers were exchanged Friday, but there was give and take during discussions throughout the day. The last of three sessions centered on the core economic issues keeping the sides apart, and it broke up after about two hours.
Fehr and his associates left the offices of the NHL's lawyers, where the negotiations took place, to conduct a conference call with players.
"We've got some things to consider and need to talk to our membership," Fehr said before the call.
Bettman said the league is ready to continue talking as soon as the union wants.
"Whatever it takes. We're available," Bettman said. "It's always better to be together and talk when there is something to talk about. I am not getting into the specifics. When you're in a process like this, you're really not watching the calendar. I'm not sure I can tell you what day it is."
That could change soon if a deal isn't struck.
The 55-day-old lockout has already caused the league to call off 327 regular-season games, including the New Year's Day Winter Classic in Michigan, and the NHL has said a full season won't be played. The league is in danger of having a lockout wipe out a full season for the second time in seven years.
Bettman declined to say if these talks have moved the sides any closer to an agreement.
"I am not going into the details of what takes place in the room," he said. "I really apologize but I do not think it would be constructive to the process. I don't want to either raise or lower expectations. I won't be happy until we get to the end result, and that means we're playing again."
Bettman is scheduled to attend Hockey Hall of Fame inductions Monday night in Toronto, but developments in negotiations could prevent that.
"That's my plan (to attend), but if there is a reason to be doing something else, as much as I enjoy the Hall of Fame inductions, if there is something else that is pending, that would take precedence."
The lockout began Sept. 16 after the collective bargaining agreement expired, and both sides rejected proposals Oct. 18. The players' association has agreed to a 50-50 split of hockey-related revenues, but that division wouldn't kick in until the third year of the deal.
During a second consecutive day of marathon negotiations Wednesday, the players' association made an offer on revenue sharing in which richer teams would help out poorer organizations, and another proposal regarding the "make-whole" provision that would guarantee full payment of all existing multiyear player contracts.
Revenue sharing and the make-whole provision are major hurdles. Both sides have made proposals that included a 50-50 split of hockey-related revenues. The NHL has moved toward the players' side on the "make-whole" provision and whose share of the economic pie that money will come from.
The NHLPA estimates that about $590 million is needed to guarantee the amount left to be paid to players on the "make-whole" provision, but so far the league is only offering $211 million.
Along with the split of hockey-related revenue and other core economic issues, contract lengths, arbitration and free agency also must be agreed upon.
The union accepted a salary cap in the previous labor pact, which wasn't reached until after the entire 2004-05 season was canceled because of a lockout. The union doesn't want to absorb the majority of concessions this time after the NHL had record revenue that exceeded $3 billion last season.
Players believe that dropping their share of hockey-related revenue from 57 percent to 50 percent is already a major concession on their part.