SAN JOSE -- Hoping to salvage an 82-game season, the NHL sweetened its offer at the bargaining table Tuesday with a proposal calling for a 50-50 revenue split with players while not requiring rollbacks in existing contracts.
The proposal was the first visible sign of progress on economic issues since the league imposed a lockout Sept. 15 and later canceled all regular-season games through the end of October.
The initial reaction from Sharks players was guardedly optimistic.
"I'm not going to get hopeful until they tell me training camp is starting," defenseman Brad Stuart said.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Tuesday's proposal was contingent on a Nov. 2 start to the season.
"We have about nine or 10 days to get this all put to bed, signed, sealed and delivered, in order for this offer to be effective and for us to move forward," Bettman told reporters in Toronto. That effectively set Oct. 25 as a likely deadline, with a one-week training camp to follow.
NHL Players Association executive director Donald Fehr reserved judgment on the league's offer but described it as "a good start."
"Our hope is that after we review this that there will be a feeling on the players' side that this is a proposal from which we can negotiate and try to reach a conclusion," Fehr said before a conference call with the NHLPA's executive committee. A formal response from the union is expected within the next two days.
Bettman did not
Under the previous collective bargaining agreement, players received 57 percent of hockey-related revenue, and the owners' initial proposal called for dropping that number to 43 percent.
The players reportedly have indicated a willingness to take less than 57 percent but only if all existing contracts are honored, because they had to give back 24 percent of their salaries to end the lockout that cost the entire 2004-05 season.
While neither Bettman nor Fehr would disclose other specifics of the league's new proposal, media sources in Toronto said they were told new contracts would be limited to five years in length and players would need to wait an extra year to be eligible for free agency.
Those and other changes designed to keep payroll costs down are expected to be challenged by Fehr, although players such as the Sharks' Dan Boyle have expressed a willingness to compromise on some issues in order to get a deal done.
Until now, each side has been working off its own proposal rather than responding to what the other has presented.
The NHLPA, for example, has put a priority on getting increased revenue sharing as a long-term solution to what ails the league financially. The new NHL offer reportedly includes a modest increase in revenue sharing but not nearly to the extent the players wanted.
That could be another sticking point.
"We as a union are trying to fix a lot of things that are wrong with the league," Sharks forward Patrick Marleau said. "We don't want to be doing this again down the road."
For more on the Sharks, see David Pollak's Working the Corners blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/sharks.
In addition to the 50-50 split in hockey-related revenue, there would be no salary cuts for players. Also, teams would be allowed to go over the salary cap for the first season of the agreement, according to Pierre LeBrun of ESPN.
The league originally wanted to raise unrestricted free agency to age 30. In the old agreement, it's 27 years of age or seven years of NHL service. Players likely to want to keep it at 27, but not expected to be a sticking point.
ESPN's LeBrun reporting it would drop from three years to two years, making it even easier for NHL to attract top European talent.
Source: Spector's Hockey