The NHL and the players' association will meet in New York on Saturday after the league requested the sides get together again.
On Wednesday, commissioner Gary Bettman, saying it was too late to play any semblance of a season. That appeared to make the NHL the first major North American sports league to lose a full season to a labor dispute.
Or did it?
In a statement released Friday night, the players' association said the NHL made the offer late Thursday night to get back together. There was no immediate word on who would take part in the meeting.
NHL chief legal officer Bill Daly was involved in a closed-door meeting Friday evening and declined to comment.
There hadn't been any official contact between the NHL and the players' association since Tuesday night — when the sides traded what they said were final offers.
All proposals were rejected, and Bettman went ahead and canceled the season Wednesday at a news conference that was scheduled two days earlier.
Bettman said in a letter to NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow on Tuesday that the league's salary-cap proposal of $42.5 million was as far as he could go and that there was no time or flexibility for negotiation.
Goodenow sent a letter back, proposing a soft cap at $49 million that could be exceeded by as much as 10 percent by teams twice during the course of the six-year deal.
It appeared there was momentum toward reaching a deal and that the season had a chance to be saved since the sides were only $6.5 million apart on their cap numbers. But talking ceased after each side sent two letters to the other on Tuesday night.
There were big breakthroughs Monday in Niagara Falls, N.Y., when the NHL agreed to drop its demand that player costs be linked to league revenues, and the union, in turn, came off its steadfast opposition to a salary cap.
But the sides couldn't get together on an agreeable number.
"A lot of players, owners, managers saw how close the two negotiating teams got to a deal and I think people are just exploring if that can be explored any more," agent Pat Morris said Friday. "I don't know if it'll have a successful conclusion."
Bettman said the NHL couldn't afford the union's final proposal and said if all 30 teams spent $49 million on player costs, then more money would be paid out to players than last season.
Rumors began to swirl on Thursday, once the realization set in that the season had indeed been canceled.
One report had Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux joining forces to try to get talks restarted. But while Gretzky, the managing partner of the Phoenix Coyotes, said he spoke to Lemieux — the Pittsburgh Penguins' player-owner — he said they didn't discuss getting negotiations restarted.
Daly said Thursday that unless the league hears from the players' association, any rumors are "meaningless."
Ted Saskin, the NHLPA senior director, said Thursday that he didn't expect the resumption of talks that could un-cancel the season.
"A lot of that is, nobody's willing to deal with the reality that the season is over. There's no way to get it back," New York Rangers player representative Tom Poti said Friday. "I'd say there's zero chance of anything happening."
Bettman has said that teams lost more than $1.8 billion over 10 years — the last time a collective bargaining agreement was reached. The previous lockout cut the 1994-95 season down to 48 games per team.
NHL clubs claim to have lost $273 million in 2002-03 and $224 million last season.
Bettman said that a deal would have to be in the drafting stages by the end of last weekend if there was going to be time to play a 28-game season and a standard 16-team postseason.
By Ira Podell