NEW YORK - The NHL and the players' association are further apart than ever before.
Union executive director Donald Fehr began the first of his two news conferences Thursday night by proclaiming he believed the sides had agreements on such issues as actual dollars, and then returned moments later to reveal the NHL rejected everything his side offered.
Hot-button topics such as the "make-whole" provision on existing contracts not only weren't settled, but are no longer being offered by the league. Forget that owners were willing to pay up to $300 million to cover the costs.
Commissioner Gary Bettman countered by saying the entire concept is off the table - along with everything else the league offered during the previous two days of talks.
"They knew there was a major gulf between us and yet they came down here and told you we were close," deputy commissioner Bill Daly said about Fehr's remarks.
When the NHL agreed to increase its make-whole offer of deferred payments from $211 million to $300 million it was part of a proposed package that required the union to agree on three nonnegotiable points.
Instead, the players' association accepted the raise in funds, but then made counterproposals on the issues the league stated had no wiggle room.
That ended Thursday's long-awaited meeting after just an hour and sent the NHL negotiating team back to the league office.
"I am disappointed beyond belief," Bettman said.
The sides won't meet face-to-face again before Saturday at the earliest. While Bettman insisted that a drop-dead date to have a deal that would preserve a season with "integrity" hasn't been established - even internally - clearly there isn't a whole lot of time to work out an agreement.
"I'm surprised," Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby said. "We feel like we moved in their direction."
The 2004-05 season was lost completely before the players' association accepted a deal that included a salary cap for the first time. While no major philosophical issues such as that exist in these negotiations, the sides still don't appear to be ready to come to an agreement.
"It looks like this is not going to be resolved in the immediate future," Fehr said.
As he was painting a positive picture as far as the closeness of the fighting sides, Daly was calling Fehr's brother, Steve - the union's special counsel - to say that the NHL was rejecting the players' counteroffer. Once the union was unwilling to accept the league's three main conditions, everything else didn't matter.
"Not only is it unusual, I would be hard-pressed to think of anything comparable in my experience," Steve Fehr said of the instant rejection.
The NHL wants to limit personal player contracts to five years, and has elevated the issue to the highest level of importance.
"It's the hill we will die on," said Daly, who added that the owners were "insulted" by the players' response to the owners' offer Wednesday night.
The union countered with an offer of an eight-year maximum length with the variable in salary being no greater than a 25 percent difference between the highest-paid year of the deal and the lowest.
When the players suggested Wednesday night that they wanted Donald Fehr to rejoin the process Thursday, the NHL informed them that his inclusion could be a "deal-breaker."