Just when it seemed the NHL was unavoidably headed toward its second lockout in eight years, something unexpected happened.
The NHL Players' Association responded to the NHL's July 13 proposal with an offer that pleasantly surprised negotiators.
With the collective bargaining agreement set to expire in one month, NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr and 23 players -- including stars Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos and Alex Ovechkin -- met with league officials, including Wild owner Craig Leipold, on Tuesday in Toronto.
The NHL proposed major changes to the collective bargaining agreement in July, and the NHLPA's rejoinder in Tuesday's two-hour meeting "should lead to a new CBA," Fehr said.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman wouldn't characterize the proposal yet, with another meeting set for today. But many believed the union was planning a complete overhaul to the league's economic system, including the elimination of the salary cap. That would have been a non-starter.
Fehr said Tuesday the players are willing to take a reduction in hockey-related revenue the next three years and that a hard salary cap would remain, with "some exceptions."
Tuesday's proposal called for "significant, expanded, more aggressive and more targeted revenue sharing" between the richer and poorer teams -- potentially more than $250 million per year, up from $170 million in the last CBA. The league proposed $190 million last month, sources say.
"What we're suggesting is that the players partner with the financially stronger owners to stabilize the industry and assist the less financially strong ownership groups," Fehr said.
Bettman, last week, made it clear that the players would be locked out if an agreement isn't reached by Sept. 15.
"Our hope is we can take care of business in the next month," he said Tuesday.
That's ideal to many players, who don't want to lose an entire season, as they did in 2004-05.
"This doesn't seem as confrontational," said Wild forward Matt Cullen, a 14-year veteran. "I love the idea that we're not doing it like we did last time where you draw your line in the sand and I draw mine and let's see who blinks first. That's just miserable, and that's not going to get anything done.
"I love the concepts in our proposal, and everybody wants it to just get done. Ultimately the game is in a great place right now. I think everybody understands that. Especially us in Minnesota, I mean, we've got a lot to look forward to ... Nobody wants to miss hockey."
The NHLPA proposed a three-year deal with a player option for a fourth year that would revert to the current, expiring CBA. In last month's NHL proposal, the league called for several changes, including raising the age of free agency and setting maximum contract lengths. Fehr said in the player proposal, "the current [contractual] system would not be modified."
In the expiring system, the players receive 57 percent of the revenue, which has risen from $2.2 billion to $3.3 billion over the past seven years.
The NHL proposed the players receive 46 percent. Fehr said because of "our desire to make an agreement," the players are willing to take a reduction that likely would equal $465 million over the next three years if the league continues to grow at an average rate ($800 million if it grows at the rate of the past two years).
Leipold, who is not permitted to comment, was one of four owners who attended Tuesday's session. One of Bettman's chief confidants, he has attended each of the 19 sessions. He'll miss his first Wednesday but will be on a conference call.
On the player side, even though Fehr has an open invitation for any player to attend any meeting, no Wild player has attended a session, including player rep Darroll Powe.
If there's a lockout, this would be the third in Bettman's 19-year tenure. The 2004-05 season was wiped out and the 1994-95 season was reduced to 48 games.
"I'm out of the prediction game," Fehr said. "Players certainly hope that there is no lockout. They want to play every bit as much as the fans want to watch them play."