Since the doors were chained shut to NHL locker rooms and arenas on Sept. 15, the same sentiment has been echoed from players around the league: "We want to play."
The players have said it. On Friday, the owners showed it.
Fearing the cancellation of a second season in 8 years because of labor unrest, and the very real possibility of franchise values dropping by 25 percent or more, and hockey falling further out of the U.S. sporting landscape, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman emailed the NHL Players' Association a hefty, 300-page proposal for a new collective-bargaining agreement.
Friday's proposal presented numerous meaningful concessions on behalf of owners to try and salvage a season.
The ball is clearly now in the players' court. The only problem is that no one knows exactly how NHLPA executive Donald Fehr will handle this nuclear football. Having watched Fehr fight for the last 4 months, we have a pretty good idea how it might all play out.
In short: Don't hold your breath. The end is not imminent. But Friday was the beginning of the endgame.
The NHLPA held an executive board and negotiating committee conference call on Friday, with Flyers players Braydon Coburn and Scott Hartnell participating, to mull the latest details. The sides are expected to speak Saturday, with a likely face-to-face meeting on Sunday's agenda in New York City.
Saturday is the 105th day of this lockout. More than 50 percent of the season's schedule already has been whacked.
Still, if you are Fehr, there's no real reason to rush back to the bargaining table.
Since long before the NHLPA more or less walked out on a possible deal on Dec. 6 in New York, scripted with Tony Award-deserving choreography, Fehr has been advising his players to hold out for better terms. It has been working. Slowly, but surely, the NHL has been inching toward the players.
Consider: The three remaining sticking points on a deal on Dec. 6 were length of the CBA, term limits on player contracts, and salary variance on player contracts to squash back-diving and front-loaded deals. The NHL moved significantly on all fronts on Friday - increasing player contract-term limits, allowing for opt-out clauses on the CBA term and salary variance percentages.
The "make whole" money, which was supposedly off the table, remains at $300 million - up from nothing in early November to $211 million on Nov. 21. Other contracting issues that previously were sticking points - such as entry-level deals, arbitration rights and unrestricted free-agent rights, which the owners were seeking to limit - will remain unchanged from the previous CBA.
For the first time in this process, the NHL officially laid out a drop-dead date with its proposal, according to the Canadian Press. This offer is contingent upon an agreement on Jan. 11, starting training camp the next day, and opening a 48-game season on Jan. 19.
Let's not forget that Fehr still has the option of playing the "disclaimer of interest" card in federal court by Tuesday, which would dissolve the union and force litigation. In many ways, the timing of Friday's latest proposal is not surprising, as the league is trying to prevent a courtroom battle that it believes will blow up the season.
Fehr's job was to prevent the players from getting annihilated in bargaining. He's already accomplished that - and then some. It is my belief that his players are as antsy - or possibly more so - than the owners, who are clearly pressuring Bettman to play a season at all costs. The entire sport, as observers on both sides are quickly recognizing, could be wiped off the map completely with another iced season.
Games already are canceled through Jan. 14. By my watch, that means Fehr still has about 2 weeks to milk the owners.
The deal might or might not get any better this time around, but he certainly will keep trying.
Danny Briere signed a contract extension with the Berlin Polar Bears, of the German Eishockey League, on Thursday. Briere, who has posted 33 points in 20 games, signed for the remainder of the season, but still maintains an opt-out clause to return to the U.S. if a new CBA is brokered in the NHL . . . Claude Giroux, who returned from Berlin to Ottawa to nurse a neck injury, remains in Canada. Giroux is hoping for labor peace before setting a new course of action . . . Of the Flyers who originally started the season in Europe, only Jake Voracek, Ilya Bryzgalov, Ruslan Fedotenko and Briere remain overseas. Wayne Simmonds, Matt Read and Giroux have returned home. Max Talbot and Bruno Gervais are skating in the 84th annual Spengler Cup tournament in Davos, Switzerland, before returning to their European teams.