MANHATTAN – For now the uncertain ace up the sleeve of the players rests.
The NHLPA did not declare a disclaimer of interest on Wednesday evening as talks with the league – and a mediator – continued late into the night at NHL headquarters.
Players boss Donald Fehr would not confirm "internal" matters as relating to the potentially disastrous and uncertain move of union dissolution by means of disclaimer, but NHL commissioner Gary Bettman indicated that the issue had not been discussed, thus allowing a Wednesday deadline to pass quietly.
"The word 'disclaimer' has yet to be uttered to us by the players' association," said Bettman, appearing worn but surprisingly chipper when lengthy talks wrapped up shortly after 1 a.m. "When you disclaim interest as a union you notify the other side. We have not been notified and as I said it's never been discussed so there has been no disclaimer."
"All I can tell you about that is the players retain all the legal options they have always had," said Fehr, refusing to offer any detail into the matter.
The disclaimer threat – which would dissolve the union and free players to sue for antitrust violations, potentially plunging the league into deep and even further turmoil – still remains though and could be utilized by players at a later point if a deal is not reached (another vote would be required).
Time is running short.
Bettman has insisted that the season start no later than January 19th, this for a 48-game season to be salvaged.
Perhaps a guiding force to bridge the remaining gap between the two parties, it was learned Wednesday that a federal mediator – Scot Beckenbaugh – had been re-injected into negotiations earlier this week, at the request of both parties. "Can't hurt," said Bettman of the non-binding third party, who has asked the two sides back for more talks at 10 a.m. Thursday morning.
Federal mediation yielded no results with the sparring factions during two days of talks in mid-December.
Progress seems to be growing stubbornly after three consecutive days of face-to-face meetings in midtown Manhattan, but plenty of obstacles remain. Seemingly resolved at one point, the players' pension fund has re-emerged as yet another sticky issue, one that the players value strongly. Also lingering is the looming divide on the 2013-2014 cap, a number pegged at $60 million by the league. Declining comment specifically on any such matter, Fehr would only say that differences still remain on "core economic issues which don't involve the share".
Optimism is cautious and certainly delicate after so many stops and starts, but dialogue is set to continue for at least another day and as Fehr likes to point out, there won't be a deal unless the two sides keep talking.