More confusion than progress was reported in the NHL labor battle Friday as no one seems quite sure what will happen next in 55-day-old lockout.
The fourth consecutive day of negotiating seemed to have a negative tone all day long, with word emerging late in the day that no progress was being made. In the afternoon, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune quoted anonymous officials as accusing NHLPA executive Donald Fehr of not accurately portraying the owners' proposal to his constituents, a charge that angered many players.
But amid all the negativity, Fehr came out Friday night and said that he didn't believe the two sides are as far apart as the owners say they are.
It was an unusual day for both sides, and Fehr said hours after a two-hour afternoon session broke up that it was possible the two sides might be back at the table on Saturday.
"We're waiting to hear from the players association in terms of when they'll be ready for us to get back together again," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said Friday evening.
What hasn't changed is the fight over the owners' desire to reduce the players from 57% to 50% starting next season.
A person with knowledge of the talks, who talked to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because details of negotiations are confidential, confirmed that owners want the 50-50 split to begin immediately, but their make-whole provision allows for $149 million to be paid to players for the first season of the deal and $62 million in the second season. Those payments both will be deferred by one year.
The owners' position is that the make-whole provision won't be needed in the third season because anticipated hockey-related revenue growth will be enough to ensure that players won't lose any of their contract value.
Fehr said the make-whole provision didn't go far enough.
A drop of one percentage point is worth about $33 million. To drop from 57% to 50% means players are receiving $231 million less than they were last season, and that doesn't include anticipated growth. Over the first two years of the deals, players would be receiving $462 million less, and the $211 million is less than half of that total.
Players have been asking for full value protection for players who have signed contracts, and they are also opposed to the owners' demand for a reduction in their individual contract rights.
They are asking for a guaranteed of $1.883 billion (the dollar amount they received last season), plus 1.75% interest compounded. The extra interest is to cover players who still need to sign before the season starts.
There are still other issues: Owners are seeking a cap on contracts at five years, plus extending unrestricted free agency to age 28 or eight years of service. Currently, players receive unrestricted free agency at 27 or after seven years of service.
Friday morning, the two sides discussed pensions, and they have now logged about 23 hours of negotiations over the past four days in an effort to reach an agreement that would allow the 2012-13 season to finally start. It was supposed to start Oct. 11, and the league has canceled the first seven weeks of the regular season, plus the Winter Classic.
However, if the two sides could reach an agreement by next week, it seems possible that the league could still have a season of 70 to 72 games after a week-long training camp.
But all of that is heavily dependent upon the two sides finding compromise over the next few days. Friday's session was crucial because, although talks have been positive over the last few days, there hasn't been much traction toward a resolution.
Bettman plans to attend Monday's Hockey Hall of Fame induction in Toronto but said that he could skip it if talks were scheduled.