TORONTO - The NHL owners blinked.
On Day 31 of the NHL lockout, commissioner Gary Bettman, feeling heat to save the season in the midst of a public-relations disaster, threw the NHL Players' Association a bone by offering up a collective bargaining agreement.
Trying to save an 82-game schedule that would start Nov. 2, the NHL offered a six-year CBA Tuesday with a significant 50-50 revenue split and the ball is in the players' court to craft a response so serious negotiations can begin.
Can this lead to a deal?
"Subject to a lot of little details and a couple of big ones but this is the icebreaker," a league insider said Tuesday.
The NHL can only hope he's right. The players won't accept the latest offer, but the decision by Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly to table a new deal in Toronto represents the first movement since the lockout started Sept. 15.
After offering the players a 24% salary rollback with the first offer on July 13, the NHL just didn't back down, it capitulated on several of demands. Sources say the players won't be able to squeeze much more out of the NHL.
While the league was concerned about negotiating against itself, sources say Bettman was so frustrated by Donald Fehr's unwillingness to discuss the "core economic issues" the NHL felt it had to extend an olive branch.
A source said the decision by Bettman and the league to lock out the players for the third time in 20 years wasn't well received on either side of the border while many governors were concerned about the hit the NHL was taking publicly.
As for the players, they're bleeding cash.
"There is pressure on both sides to play," another insider said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
A league source said this is a step in the right direction, but if the players accept a 50-50 split in hockey-related revenues, then there will be more than a $200-million shortfall for the NHL that will have to be made up somehow.
The players currently receive 57% of the revenues so this offer will represent a big drop in the way the pot of money is split. Bettman told reporters that all contracts for this year would be guaranteed under the proposal.
This is still a pay cut for the players and the salary cap will drop after a guarantee in the first season.
So, how does the NHLPA respond? The union held a conference call with the negotiating committee late Tuesday to discuss the initial thoughts. Its enthusiasm wasn't nearly as strong as the public reaction.
The union can't outright dismiss the deal but on the call the players didn't like the idea of the 50-50 split, they weren't thrilled with the five-year limit on contracts and they want executive director Fehr to go back to the league.
"If there's a response that we can make that will advance the process, of course we will," Fehr said. "I've been looking for a way to get these negotiations jump-started and if this does it, that'd be great. We'll see though."
A source said what happened Tuesday was the official start of true negotiations between the NHL and the union. The Sept. 15 expiration date on the CBA wasn't a real deadline. Neither was opening night on Oct. 11.
We know that Nov. 2 is the drop-dead date to play a full 82-game schedule. The sides can begin real negotiations with a deadline of Oct. 25 so the league is able to hold a one-week training camp.
"My guess is what we're going to see now is 10 days of very intense negotiations," a league source said. "There will be ups and there will be downs, but this is a starting point that maybe should have been offered in July."