On Thursday morning, Washington Capitals forward Jason Chimera made it clear he wasn't going to get sucked in to getting too optimistic about talks to end the NHL lockout.
"I rode the roller coaster for a long time," he said. "I don't want to anymore."
Thursday night that roller coaster, and the course of negotiations toward a new collective bargaining agreement, appeared to go off the rails entirely. Minutes after NHL Players' Association executive director Donald Fehr said the sides were in "complete agreement" on many issues, he went back to reporters in New York City and told them: "There has been a development. It's not a positive one."
The league responded to the players' offer with a firm no, delivered via voicemail from deputy commissioner Bill Daly to NHLPA special counsel Steve Fehr. Talks broke off and rhetoric returned, leaving the 2012-13 season in peril.
"We're at a loss to explain what happened," commissioner Gary Bettman said. "I am disappointed beyond belief that we are where we are tonight and we're going to have to take a deep breath and try and regroup."
The drastic 180-degree turn within minutes, in at least the public perception of the talks, appeared to be a new low during a lockout that has featured plenty of them. Previous laughable moments included mediator Guy Serota getting taken off the case for his Twitter feed and name-calling of Bettman by players.
This time, tensions and stakes are high and answers are hard to find about what went wrong and, more importantly, what's next. What happened is complicated in the scope of these CBA talks but can be boiled down to this: the NHL made an offer that it considered a "package deal," not for negotiating. The NHLPA tried to negotiate off it, "cherry-picking" aspects of the proposal that it liked.
Fehr and the players thought it was a step forward. Bettman and the owners were incensed that there wasn't a "Yes" answer to three key issues: a five-year contract limit, 10-year CBA and no compliance buyouts or caps on escrow.
When the NHLPA offered an eight-year contract limit, eight-year CBA and expressed interest in compliance issues, the league
"We were advised in a voicemail message that the moves the players made were not acceptable, that there was no reason to stay around for meetings tonight or tomorrow, that they would be in touch, and that something, everything, that's not clear, is off the table," Donald Fehr said.
Bettman and Daly made it clear that the "make whole" provision, which would pay players back over time for their immediately reduced salaries, was off the table.
"The concept itself is off the table," Bettman said.
Gone is the optimism that was starting to emerge in these talks earlier in the week. Daly called the five-year contract limit "the hill we will die on" and Fehr said "We've got to figure out a way to reach an agreement, if one is possible."
There is still time to save some semblance of a season, even though the rest of the December schedule is expected to be canceled soon. Bettman insisted Thursday night that the NHL hasn't set a deadline by which a deal would have to be made in order to play this year.
"The fact of the matter is, we'll get to a point and at that point we'll conclude we can't have a season with integrity and then we'll have to make a tough decision," Bettman said, also implying no fewer than 48 games would work. "I am certainly hoping that we don't get to that place. But when we do, we'll be there."
It's uncertain when negotiations will resume. Fehr had said Thursday evening that he believed a settlement could be reached rather quickly, but his about-face was alarming.
"It looks like this is not going to be resolved in the immediate future. I hope that turns out to be wrong, but that's certainly what the message is that we have today," he said. "That's not withstanding the fact that we are clearly very close if not on top of one another in connection with most of the major issues."
There's not even an agreement on how close the sides are. The NHL added $100 million to "make whole" this week, leading to Fehr's positivity. But contract issues remained a sticking point.
Now everything is.
"Regrettably, we have been unable to close the divide on some critical issues that we feel are essential to the immediate and long-term health of our game," Winnipeg Jets owner Mark Chipman said in a statement. "While I sense there are some members of the players association that understand our perspective on these issues, clearly there are many that don't."
Count most of those on the outside of negotiations as those who don't understand or know what will happen next. Players reached Thursday night were tight-lipped about what's next. Disclaimer of interest could be the NHLPA's move to push the process along. Fehr wouldn't say.
Something has to give, though, before the 2012-13 season goes the way of 2004-05.
" Am I unhappy about the prospect? You bet I am. It absolutely is something that torments me," Bettman said about canceling a second season in eight years. "I'm not happy about this, but I've got to play the hand that I'm dealt."
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