TORONTO - Distrust continues to creep into the NHL's stalled labour negotiations.
The NHL Players' Association was questioning the league's motives after news surfaced Tuesday that team owners and general managers were given a 48-hour window last week to speak with players about the NHL's latest contract offer.
"Most owners are not allowed to attend bargaining meetings," said Steve Fehr, the NHLPA's special counsel. "No owners are allowed to speak to the media about the bargaining. It is interesting that they are secretly unleashed to talk to the players about the meetings the players can attend, but the owners cannot."
The window was granted at the same time the NHL took the unusual step of publishing its entire proposal on its website last Wednesday. Team employees were told they could answer questions about the offer from players until 11:59 p.m. on Friday.
"Players were contacting club personnel to inquire about our proposal," said deputy commissioner Bill Daly. "We gave them a limited window in which to respond to those inquiries."
The NHL's up-and-down negotiations have stalled just days before a deadline to save the entire season. On Tuesday evening, the NHLPA requested a Wednesday meeting at the league's New York office, provided it was held without pre-conditions.
However, Daly said that it wouldn't be granted since the union hadn't shown any interest in the NHL's most recent proposal and wasn't ready to table another offer of its own.
"What would we be meeting about?" said Daly.
"The League is apparently unwilling to meet," said Fehr. "That is unfortunate as it is hard to make progress without talking."
Tension seems to be growing between the parties with the lockout now in its sixth week.
The NHL sent out strict guidelines prior to allowing club personnel to speak with players for the first time since the work stoppage began on Sept. 15, but didn't alert the union it was doing so. In a lengthy internal memo obtained by The Canadian Press, the league stated clearly to teams that the discussions had to be limited to the contents of the proposal.
It also provided examples of questions that shouldn't be asked of players and noted that any violation would be subject to NHL By-Law 17.17, which grants commissioner Gary Bettman the power to levy fines up to US$250,000.
"You may not ask (a player) what he or others have in mind," the memo read. "If he volunteers what he has in mind you should not respond positively or negatively or ask any questions but instead refer him to the NHLPA.
"Likewise, you may not suggest hypothetical proposals that the league might make in the future or that the league might entertain from the union."
It was unclear how many players were contacted during the 48-hour window, but one general manager acknowledged privately that he chose not to speak with his players because he felt uncomfortable doing so.
With no deal in sight, more top players have set their sights on Europe. Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane signed with EHC Biel in Switzerland on Tuesday, just days after Washington Capitals centre Nicklas Backstrom packed his bags for Dynamo Moscow in the KHL.
Last week, Bettman said a full regular schedule could be played if an agreement was reached by Thursday and the puck was dropped on Nov. 2.
However, some players have questioned that timeline.
"I still think we could get a full schedule in but if it started a week or two weeks after Nov. 2, is that such a problem?" Oilers goaltender Devan Dubnyk told the Edmonton Journal on Monday.
The league's latest proposal included a 50-50 split of revenues between owners and players, and a number of changes to contracting rules, including a five-year term limit, shortened entry-level deals and unrestricted free agency pushed back to age 28 or eight years of service.
The union countered with three offers that focused solely on economics. Each of those saw revenue get to a 50-50 split over time—an important provision for the NHLPA because it wants to ensure all current contracts are paid out in full.
The league remains open to tinkering with the "make whole" provision in its latest offer, which would see players receive deferred payments for any portion of their salary affected by an immediate drop in revenue share from 57 per cent to 50 per cent.
Under the league proposal, those payments would count against the players' share in future seasons. If that was altered, the sides might be able to find some common ground to start working towards a new deal.