Do we finally dare to hope?
After Tuesday's meetings were called "the best day we've had so far," cautious optimism is everywhere. Penguins owner Ron Burkle, seen as a skilled deal-maker and a moderate, reportedly led the push to make a deal. He was aided on the players' side by Sidney Crosby. The meetings ended cordially, without the usual blame-game to the press.
So what changed?
A lot is being made of the fact that Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr weren't in the room yesterday, but I believe that wasn't the key. For one thing, the structure of the meeting was Bettman's idea. For another, their second-in-commands were present and involved as always. Finally, players said before the meeting that they didn't mind if Bettman was there as long as the chief hardliner Jeremy Jacobs wasn't.
Jacobs was present after all, but the shift seems to have come in the owners' approach.
Pierre LeBrun zeroes in on the issue that would likely cause the most movement: the battle over contracting rights.
We’re in December. Both sides are feeling the immense heat of a season hanging in the balance. Both sides are keenly aware when you talk to them that this is potentially the last shot at getting something done before the union ramps up talk of decertification and the owners threaten to blow up the entire season.
And perhaps, all along, the league was waiting until this stage of the process to finally, finally show a willingness to play ball on its numerous demands in the player contracting rights. Neither side would divulge specifics late Tuesday night, but I’d be shocked if the league didn’t finally relent on some contracting rights demands. That would certainly go a long way toward making the players eager to make a deal.
Reporters with league sources have said over and over that they expected the NHL to do some horse-trading on other issues once players agreed to a 50/50 split, but so far that hadn't happened. The sides were a mere $182 million apart, but owners gave no sign of relenting on rights. Players were adamant that they wouldn't take more restrictions across the board if they were giving up so much in revenue.
This has never been about a major issue like re-fighting the war over the salary cap. Instead, this lockout has been a long, drawn-out process of whittling down the massive wish list of the owners' first proposal down to a very large one.
The timing is right for a shift. We're at the point where the most lucrative months in the NHL season are being threatened (from January on). Players were also seriously considering taking steps to file lawsuits, a risky fight all would prefer to avoid. While it's taken far too long, if most of the owners are finally at the "Let's make a deal" stage, this is progress.
How many owners are on board?
Here's a question everyone still has today -- why weren't moderate owners like Burkle involved all along?
The four owners on the original negotiating committee were pegged as hawks. Jeremy Jacobs, the chairman of the Board of Governors, is a notorious hardliner; his public reputation lies somewhere beneath that of Mr. Burns and pre-reform Ebenezer Scrooge. Craig Leipold spent recklessly in free agency and is seen as the offseason's biggest hypocrite. It wasn't the best team to earn players' trust and cut a deal swiftly.
Now there is progress after new faces joined the table. Has power shifted away from the hardliners, or was this the plan laid out from the start?
We have no way of knowing. It's hard to measure dissent in the owners' ranks when anyone who speaks out risks a million dollar fine. Bunkle's push was made in the presence of Jacobs, but we're left to speculate how many owners would support this. It helps that the two sides aren't far apart, and the pressure of time has always been the biggest motivator. On the other hand, a move like this is overdue.
In short, there are plenty of reasons for optimism right now, but the NHL owners are the most important group we know nothing about.
The timing's just about right for 50 games if they can swing it. Better late than never.