BY GEORGE RICHARDS
For the first time in months, there is reason to be optimistic the NHL may return to the ice.
And it could come soon.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the league made a substantial offer to its players' union on Tuesday. The biggest concession: splitting hockey-related revenue down the middle and not demanding a blanket rollback of salaries.
"The fact of the matter is, we offered a 50-50 share of HRR,'' Bettman told reporters outside NHLPA offices in Toronto, "and we believe we addressed the concern that players have about what happens to their salaries as a result in this year of reducing the percentage from 57 to 50 percent.''
The NHL, which locked out its players for the third time since 1994 on Sept. 16, had previously offered to give up close to 47 percent of revenue.
Players got 57 percent of the league's record $3 billion of revenue in salary last season -- the final year of a collective bargaining agreement that lasted seven years after the entire 2004-05 season was wiped out because of the labor strife.
Bettman said the league decided to make the offer on Tuesday to hold a full 82 game season.
Even though the first two weeks of the original schedule have been cancelled, Bettman said an 82-game slate could be completed if the season were to start by Nov. 2.
If a deal between the union and the league is reached in the coming days -- Bettman said the window to work with goes through next week -- the Panthers could open at home on Nov. 3 against the Winnipeg Jets. Florida would raise its first Southeast Division championship banner that night. The schedule, obviously, could be tweaked.
The popular Winter Classic held on New Year's Day -- this season at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor with surrounding events in downtown Detroit -- would be saved if a deal is reached soon. The All-Star Game scheduled for Columbus could be scrapped, however, to squeeze in more games so the Stanley Cup Finals don't bleed into July.
"If we were to drop the puck on November 2nd for the start of the regular season, we could preserve an 82-game schedule for the regular season and play full playoffs as we normally do and be done before the end of June,'' Bettman said.
Bettman said 82 games could fit into the compressed time if a game was added every five weeks. So far, the Panthers have lost five games -- two home contests -- because of lockout cancelations.
A compressed training camp of about a week would be all that could be allowed under the circumstances. Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said before the lockout that he didn't think a short camp would affect his team very much. Only a handful of players aren't playing in Europe -- and almost all of those players are working out weekly at the team's training facility in Coral Springs.
"We're ready to go, even if there is an audible thrown in there,'' Dineen said. "If things change up, we're ready. We are very comfortable with whatever comes up from physicals on the first day to the first practice. Our guys are in good shape. They will be ready to play whenever it is.''
The NHLPA, led by former baseball union boss Donald Fehr, held a teleconference with its negotiating team and executive board on Tuesday evening but did not come up with an official response to the offer.
Fehr spoke to reporters outside his offices prior to the conference call. Fehr said the NHL's offer was for "at least six years" and wasn't a small amount of paperwork to go through.
The union must now figure out what constitutes hockey income according to the league as well as other issues such as free agency, expansion, scheduling and arbitration.
The NHL was represented by Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly at the meetings. The NHLPA was represented by Fehr and his brother Steve who is the NHLPA's special counsel.
"There were some explanatory documents that we still have to wade through,'' Fehr said. "The process that we're going to engage in now is to make sure we read it completely and fully, that we understand it.''
According to reports from ESPN and TSN, the two sides are expected to talk again in the coming days with a counteroffer expected as early as Wednesday. The league says it is open to talk whenever the union wants. Bettman said he understands the NHLPA has a lot to go over since the NHL's proposal wasn't constructed "overnight.''
"We believe that this was a fair offer for a long-term deal, and it's one that we hope gets a positive reaction so that we can drop the puck on November 2nd,'' Bettman said.
Bettman also added: "We hope that this effort that we've undertaken today would be successful because we know how difficult this all has been for everybody associated with the game, particularly our fans.''