Although Don Fehr warned once again not to read the tea leaves, the postponement of Wednesday's NHL's collective-bargaining negotiations continued to highlight the gap between the league and NHL Players' Association, and the emotions that are growing as a result of their differences.
Fehr, the executive director of the NHLPA, held an impromptu meeting with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on Wednesday morning in Toronto, but their scheduled session in the afternoon was subsequently put off until today.
"I will say, you could probably observe there is some degree of frustration going on between the parties, but that does not surprise me," Fehr told reporters.
Asked if the postponement of the afternoon session was a bad sign, Fehr, the former director of the Major League Baseball Players' Association, termed it an "ordinary." But seven years after a lockout canceled the entire 2004-05 NHL season, nothing seems routine about the recent dialogue.
A month ago, the NHL made its original proposal to the NHLPA, calling for the players' share of the league revenue to be cut to 46 percent (43 percent according to the NHLPA) from 57 percent. The plan also asked for contracts to be limited to five years, entry-level deals to be extended to five years from three years, and for players to wait 10 years to become unrestricted free agents.
On Aug. 14, the NHLPA countered with an "alternative" plan that focused on more equal revenue sharing among the NHL's 30 teams. It reduced the players' share of the league's revenue each of the next three seasons, a total that could have reached $465 million if the league continued to grow at a seven-percent rate.
But less than 24 hours after the NHLPA announced its proposal, Bettman shot down the plan, saying "there's still a wide gap between us, and not much time to go."
Now with only 30 days before the Blues are scheduled to report to training camp Sept. 21, and 50 days until the club's regular-season opener Oct. 11, time is running out on finding a collective-bargaining agreement that will suit both sides. The NHL has already established that if a new CBA is not finalized before the current one expires Sept. 15, the owners will lock out the players.
"I think we're still confident and believe we can get a deal done," said former Blues union representative B.J. Crombeen, who was traded to Tampa Bay this offseason but remains a member of the NHLPA's negotiating committee. "But it's something that takes time and takes work.
"We've made a good presentation, a proposal we think really fixes the problems the league has and makes us work in a partnership and grow together. Obviously they have their point of view and they're going to make their (case). It's how negotiations work. But it's everyone's goal to get it done and get it done as soon as possible."
Fehr and Bettman traded e-mails last weekend, and the two apparently arranged Wednesday's pre-session chat, which lasted two hours.
One could make the case that the morning meeting took the place of the scheduled afternoon negotiating session, but it could also be argued that Wednesday's development proves how the league and union remain in the early stages of their talks.
Fehr acknowledged that the sides discussed the core economic issues that are at the center of the negotiations more specifically, but the NHL and NHLPA also needed the day to reset the table.
"It was to discuss a couple things ... some of the substantive issues, plus procedurally what's the best way to go forward," Fehr said. "What do we do next? We had a discussion designed hopefully to make sure we understood one another as to how we saw our respective ways to go forward, meaning continue discussions."
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly agreed.
"More than anything else," Daly told USA Today on Wednesday, "it was to review where we are in the process, where we've come from, where we are with the various proposals, and to determine how to move the process forward in the best way possible ... hoping and understanding that both sides are committed to using the time left to making a deal as quickly as possible."
After today's session, negotiations are expected to resume next week at NHL headquarters in New York.
"I'm out of the prediction business and don't read tea leaves," Fehr said. "All I can tell you is what I've told you many times before. That is, you get up in the morning and you try and work that day to see if you can make progress and if you don't find an agreement that day, you do it again the next day and you keep doing it until you find a way."