By Sarah Kwak
December 05, 2012

NEW YORK -- Walking into the lobby of a sterile skyscraper near Times Square on Wednesday morning, Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee expressed a hint of the optimism that so many around the NHL have been waiting to hear. After an eight-hour session that included 18 players and six owners at a New York hotel on Tuesday evening, a meeting that notably did not include Commissioner Gary Bettman or NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr, there seemed to be reason to feel encouraged.

"Best day of my life so far," said McPhee, echoing -- to a certain extent -- the sentiments of NHLPA special counsel Steve Fehr, who'd said about Thursday's seeming breakthrough in the collective bargaining talks, "In some ways I'd say it might be the best day we've had, which isn't to paint too over-optimistic of a picture."

It was the closest thing to progress heard in the 80 days that the players have been locked out and the season put on hold. That optimism, guarded or otherwise, seemed to bleed into the morning's scheduled Board of Governors' meeting.

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When asked after the two-hour BOG meeting if he still felt the same way, McPhee didn't recant. And judging by the faces of the other owners (very few of them spoke to reporters), it didn't seem like there had been a disastrous reaction to whatever had happened on Tuesday. "We feel good about the information we've gotten," Columbus Blue Jackets president John Davidson said.

Parsing very few words from general managers and executives is almost certainly an exercise in futility. But it does seem that, if nothing else, the mood inside the NHL's negotiations with its players changed, though a league source suggested that it isn't quite time to start sharpening the skates yet.

The reality is that little concrete progress had been made into Wednesday, no numbers agreed upon, though the players submitted a proposal in the afternoon that the owners mulled for an hour or so before the sides reconvened. And then took another break after the league supposedly countered. There was a flurry of activity with players and owners going from room to room as rumors (the NHL offered a 10-year deal) and tweets flew.

"Asked if he could confirm both sides had made proposals, Don Fehr said he would not confirm anything one way or another," tweeted Yahoo's Nick Cotsonika.

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(TSN later reported that the league has offered a 10-year deal with an opt-out clause after eight years, an increase in the "make whole" provision for honoring existing contracts from $211 million to $300 million, with $50 million of it going to player pensions, and no changes in free agency and salary arbitratio rules, but is still asking for a five-year limit on player contracts and a maximum year-to-year cap of five per cent on salary differential.)

One thing was clear: there are still issues large and small that have not been settled, and they will not be easy to settle, which is why the talks nearly broke off at one point on Wednesday.

But the league is still in a better position than it was 48 hours ago.

Perhaps by taking the heads -- Bettman and Fehr -- out of the equation, it created a more workable environment. It's no secret that the players do not possess the highest opinion of the commissioner (See: Versteeg, Kris).

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And the league's brass believes that Fehr, the former baseball union head known for his intransigence, might be the biggest impediment to the process. Neither side seems to have an appetite to face the other party's leader. So it is a credit to Bettman for suggesting they both ride the pine for now.

Instead, the work inside the negotiating room is being carried out by a group of six owners (from markets large and small) and a coterie of players (superstars and journeymen), who reconvened Wednesday afternoon after the Board meeting. Chief among the relationships in that room is the one between Ron Burkle, a billionaire businessman and part owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and superstar center Sidney Crosby. The two reportedly flew to New York together, along with co-owner Mario Lemieux, intent on resolving this lockout. The face of the NHL, its savior coming out of the 2004-05 lockout, was there to revive the league again. It's almost too perfect a narrative.

And in reality, it probably is.

It's reminiscent of a bit in the last season of the all-too-short-lived TV series Arrested Development, where Michael Bluth tunes into Jim Cramer's Mad Money to see how his family's business is being evaluated on the market. When the loud-mouthed TV investment guru excitedly upgrades the stock from "Triple Sell" to "Don't Buy," it was an encouraging sign. When the company got bumped up to "Risky" by series' end, it prompted a celebration and the family to chant, "Risky! Risky! Risky!"

That's about how it feels right now.

In the throes of World War II, Winston Churchill once famously said: "This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

So there, too, it stands in this long, protracted process to bring the NHL back. There are reasons to be optimistic -- and a change in mood and attitude can certainly spark tangible movement -- but no victory will mean more than the final one.

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