Yesterday, heck, this morning, I thought we were all destined for an NHL lockout.

Now, I think there is a much greater chance of avoiding it after the NHLPA, 32 days after the NHL made its initial and very one-sided proposal, finally countered today in Toronto.

Trust me, this won’t be over quickly, but also trust me, the people in that room on the NHL’s side of the table today half expected union chief Donald Fehr to walk in, blow up the salary cap and start over from scratch with a completely brand new economic system in the NHL.

If that happened, we all knew we’d have a long way to go and there would no way an agreement would be reached by the Sept. 15 lockout deadline.

Instead, the NHLPA extended an “alternative proposal” today that kept the hard salary cap (with what Fehr called a few exceptions) in place, which means right away the owners were all ears, remained attentive and should be willing to at least negotiate off this current proposal.

The NHLPA is also willing to accept $465 million in salary givebacks (i.e. reduction in their share of the revenue pie), but that’s over a three-year period, and I think something the NHL will want to negotiate bigtime.

The NHLPA also calls for expanded revenue sharing of what Fehr said would be up to $250 million a season. The league proposed $190 million, I’m told by sources, which is up from $170 million in the previous CBA. In the player proposal, I’m told the figure listed is actually $240 million (not 250, like Fehr said in his presser). Whatever: $240 million or $250 million is relatively not a long ways off from $190 million, so that’s pretty negotiable.

The other area where I think the NHL will want to negotiate with the union is in the contractual system. The NHL proposed no salary arbitration, increasing the years of service to become an unrestricted free agent from seven years to 10, raising entry-level contracts from three years to five and going to maximum five-year contracts. The NHLPA proposal offered no modifications, Fehr said. You know the NHL will want to delve into that.

Also, the NHLPA CBA proposal is for three years. The fourth year of the CBA is a player option to revert back to the current, expiring CBA. Zero chance the owners ever agree to that.

So, as you see, there’s a lot of stuff to negotiate. But the good news is: Now they’re negotiating and yesterday they weren’t even doing that. The good news is, also, the league plans to go back to the union and meet Wednesday, which wasn’t on the schedule.

So, clearly there was a sigh of relief among the owners today that the union isn’t proposing to blow up the system because it must recognize that would mean Armageddon. As one heavy hitter characterized the NHLPA’s proposal to me: “It could have been a whole lot worse.”

Meetings, I’m told, have been professional and cordial. Today, the league got the proposal, went downstairs to have lunch and digest it and decided it couldn’t give a response until it fully understands what the union proposed. Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly went back upstairs to Fehr and the 23 players who attended the session, thanked them and asked to have the rest of the day to analyze.

But they said they wanted to meet Wednesday and keep the process moving. Last time, it was a constant battle between these two sides. It was a personal battle between Bettman and then-union head Bob Goodenow.

Bettman and Fehr seem to have very respectful relationships. Even the last month when there was no official counterproposal from the NHLPA, at least the two sides were cosmetically meeting.

So, essentially, today was not a bad day. There will still be moments of clashes and gloves being thrown down and no progress. But that’s all part of the bargaining process. It’s a negotiation. You know, most things don’t happen until there’s a deadline putting pressure on everybody to get a deal done, so expect this to drag on still.

But last week, things looked bleak. Fehr talked about a sizable “gulf.” Bettman made clear the players will be locked out if there’s no agreement by Sept. 15.

Now, they’re at least in the same universe, talking and seem intent on making sure this season starts on time.

I talked to a handful of players today, including veteran Matt Cullen, and that is his sense, too.

He loves the concepts in the NHLPA’s proposal, believes they’ll help strengthen the struggling franchises, believes wholeheartedly in Fehr’s “innovative” vision and loves the fact that the NHL and NHLPA are talking.

“I’m so impressed with Don,” Cullen said. “He doesn’t seem confrontational. I absolutely get a really good feel from him. I have a lot of faith in him. I just have a lot better feeling this year than I did [in 2004-05].”

“Last time, it was like, ‘Oh my God,’ you knew there was no chance,” Cullen said. “Last time was miserable. This time I’m excited because it looks like both sides are at least trying to get this done. We all want to play. Both sides. That’s what everybody just wants. It’s nothing personal. It’s business. Of course both sides are going to try to get the best deal for them, but ultimately, this game is in a great place right now. I mean, we want what’s best for the owners, too, because we’re all in this together.

“Let’s build off that and move in the right direction. I think today was positive.”

More Cullen: “This doesn’t seem as confrontational. 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 right now [after the signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter]. Nobody wants to miss hockey.”

One last note relating to the Wild: There have been 19 bargaining sessions. Wild owner Craig Leipold has been to every one, although he’ll be on Wednesday’s via conference call. Even though there’s an open invitation from Fehr, no Wild player has yet to attend a bargaining session, including player rep Darroll Powe.

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