The NHL and the NHL Players' Association began to make significant progress toward a labor agreement when the two lead negotiators were removed from the talks Tuesday.
And it might not be entirely a coincidence that the negotiations broke down -- possibly putting the 2012-13 season in jeopardy -- when one of them, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, returned to the bargaining table Thursday.
Talks were suspended Thursday night, not long after Fehr conducted a news conference in which he suggested that a settlement that would get the league back in business was near, if not imminent.
"We are clearly very close [to], if not on top of, one another on the major issues," he told reporters at the site of the talks in New York.
"We think there is a complete agreement on dollars. There shouldn't be much reason why we can't get an agreement in the near-term."
Those upbeat words barely had begun to circulate when Steve Fehr, the NHLPA's special counsel, received a voicemail from NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, informing him that the offer the union put forth a short time earlier had been rejected.
Flatly and completely.
And that the NHL saw no point in conducting further negotiations, at least for the time being.
"It looks like this is not going to be resolved in the immediate future," Donald Fehr said.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman suggested later that the league reacted so strongly and negatively to the NHLPA proposal because it had been expecting a yes-or-no response to its most recent offer, and instead got back a counterproposal built around cherry-picking items it liked.
"This is a package," Bettman said. "Everything fits together. When the union comes in and says, 'We'll take this and this' ... you're further apart."
Penguins center Sidney Crosby, a prominent figure during the most recent negotiations, said the NHLPA did not believe it had been given a take-it-or-leave-it offer, and felt it had made significant moves toward positions the NHL had staked out.
"I'm surprised [the negotiations broke down]," Crosby said. "We feel like we moved in their direction."
Crosby and Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle had been widely praised for the part they played in generating positive momentum for the negotiations earlier in the week, and it was a statement Burkle released through the league Thursday night that suggested Fehr's return to the talks had been a poison pill.
The statement read, in part:
"We made substantial movement on our end quickly, but unfortunately, that was not met with the same level of movement from the other side. The players asked us to be patient and keep working with them. It's not what they do [for a living], and they wanted us to know they were committed.
"We understood and appreciated their situation. We came back with an aggressive commitment to pensions which we felt was well-received. We needed a response on key items that were important to us, but we were optimistic that we were down to very few issues. I believe a deal was within reach.
"We were therefore surprised when the Fehrs made a unilateral and 'non-negotiable' decision -- which is their right -- to end the player/owner process that has moved us farther in two days than we moved at any time in the past months."
Donald Fehr and Bettman had been excluded from the talks Tuesday and Wednesday -- an idea Bettman put forth when talks bogged down last week -- while four new owners and about 20 players were added to the mix.
After a decidedly upbeat initial session Tuesday -- "We thought we were on to something good," Bettman said -- the good feelings seemed to fade the next day, when some of the more contentious issues were discussed.
Gloom seemed to set in as Thursday progressed, only to be briefly dispelled by Fehr's unabashedly optimistic news conference. That didn't last, however, and now the focus shifts to when the talks will start again.
And whether the season ever will.
The league has not set a drop-dead date for having a deal in place and anything that's been taken off the negotiating table obviously can be returned there in a moment's notice, but Bettman raised the possibility of the season being called off, as the 2004-05 one had been in a similar dispute.
The commissioner said he is "tormented" by thoughts of canceling another season and, after pointing out that the lockout-shortened season of 1994-95 consisted of 48 games, said, "I can't imagine wanting to play fewer than that.
"When we get to the point that we can't play a season with integrity ... then we'll be done."mobilehome - penguins
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.