NEW YORK — The NHL and the players’ association met deep into Wednesday night after the union made its second counteroffer of the week in an effort to end the season-long lockout.
The second round of talks Wednesday began shortly after 8 p.m. EST and was still going three hours later. The sides also met for about an hour during the afternoon when the union first gave its latest proposal to the league.
Neither side said much regarding Wednesday’s discussions, but it is believed that the pension issue has become a major stumbling block in the negotiations.
Both sides are feeling the pressure of the clock, as the union faced a self-imposed midnight deadline to file a disclaimer of interest. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has said a deal must be reached by Jan. 11 for a season to be played.
The union’s proposal Wednesday makes four offers between the sides since the NHL restarted the negotiation process Thursday with a new proposal.
A small group meeting on the pension issue was held Wednesday morning before the players’ association presented its offer. A deal can’t be done without a resolution on pensions.
The league presented the players with a counteroffer Tuesday night in response to one the union made Monday.
The lockout reached its 109th day Wednesday, and Bettman has said that the league told the union a deal needs to be in place by next week so a 48-game season can begin on Jan. 19.
All games through Jan. 14 along with the All-Star game have been canceled, claiming more than 50 percent of the original schedule.
The players’ association had a few more hours to declare a “disclaimer of interest,” which would dissolve the union and make it a trade association. That would allow players to file antitrust lawsuits against the NHL.
If the deadline passes, union members could vote again to authorize their board to file a disclaimer at a later date.
“The players retain their option and it’s an internal matter,” players’ association executive director Donald Fehr said Wednesday.
Fehr believed an agreement on a players-funded pension had been reached before talks blew up in early December. That apparently wasn’t the case, or the NHL has changed its offer regarding the pension in exchange for agreeing to other things the union wanted.
The NHL proposed in its first offer Thursday that pension contributions come out of the players’ share of revenues, and $50 million of the league’s make-whole payment of $300 million will be allocated and set aside to fund potential underfunding liabilities of the plan at the end of the collective bargaining agreement.
Last month, the NHL agreed to raise its make-whole offer of deferred payments from $211 million to $300 million as part of a proposed package that required the union to agree on three nonnegotiable points. Instead, the players’ association accepted the raise in funds, but then made counterproposals on the issues the league stated had no wiggle room.
After the league countered with another offer Tuesday night, Bettman said the new proposal addressed specific areas the union requested.
“There were certain things that the players’ association asked for that we agreed to. There were some things that we moved in their direction, and there were other things that we said no,” he said. “That’s part of the process.”
But it’s a process that has limited time to be completed.
The NHL is the only North American professional sports league to cancel a season because of a labor dispute, losing the 2004-05 campaign to a lockout. A 48-game season was played in 1995 after a lockout stretched into January.