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NHL and players still not talking about the money

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NEW YORK (AP) - Progress was finally made during negotiations between the NHL and the players' association, but neither side came close to celebrating.

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With core economic issues far away from the bargaining table on Friday, the league and union got back to talking in a pair of sessions that totaled about five hours and included a private meeting between Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr.

Secondary issues were discussed, and some agreements were made, but none regarding the most contentious of topics that have left NHL players still locked out two weeks before the regular season is supposed to begin.

``I wish we had spent today on what we consider to be the more meaningful issues, but it is what it is,'' NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said. ``We really need to hear from the players' association on those. We need some kind of sign that they are prepared to compromise their economic position because we haven't had that since Aug. 14.

``We'll see if we get there.''

At least they got back to talking - which hadn't happened since a few days before the NHL locked out its players on Sept. 16.

``It was a good day,'' Daly said. ``We went through a lot of the areas we'd covered over the summer. We started closing off some agreements in some areas, and some continued areas of disagreements in others. It's part of the process.''

All of the issues, big and small, must be ironed out before hockey can get out of the board room and back on the ice. So while the divisive topics still need to be tackled, the smaller ones have to be worked on, too.

That was the goal on Friday, and will continue to be on Saturday and Sunday when talks continue at the league's New York office.

``I don't want to use the adjective optimistic, but it was a productive discussion,'' NHL Players' Association special counsel Steve Fehr said. ``We had a good session, and hopefully it will continue and build momentum.''

A handful of players also took part in Friday's talks.

The groups agreed on issues related to player safety and drug testing, areas that weren't expected to be contentious. When they get back together over the weekend, they still aren't expected to dive into the splitting up of hockey-related revenue.

Players received 57 percent of the net hockey-related revenues in the previous collective bargaining agreement, and owners want to bring that number down under 50 percent.

The sides aren't moving closer to a compromise while they talk about other issues.

And that is where the frustration lies. The NHL is waiting for the players' association to make a counterproposal to one the league made in the previous bargaining session more than two weeks ago.

``We can't make them talk about what they don't want to talk about,'' Daly said. ``In fairness, we do have to cover these issues if we're going to reach an agreement. What we're doing today is important, it's just not the most important things we can be doing.

``We've made at least two consecutive moves in significant dollars in their direction, and they haven't moved a single dollar in our direction since Aug. 4.''

Former player Mathieu Schneider, now an NHLPA special assistant to the executive director, said Friday morning that there were agreements on more rigorous drug testing, expanding it to parts of the year during which testing is not currently done.

Neither side sees the use of performance-enhancing drugs as a problem in the NHL.

``We're in agreement that it's not an issue in our sport,'' Schneider said. ``I think it's in the players' best interest as well as the sport to close off any possible time during the year where players could use.''

It is not impossible that monetary issues will come up for discussion in this round of talks, they just aren't scheduled. Neither side has indicated it is prepared to make a new offer now regarding how to split up the more than $3 billion annual pot of hockey-related revenue.

``In general, when you're dealing with collective bargaining, when you start to have agreements on smaller issues, it can lead to bigger issues,'' Schneider said, ``but it's still too early to say.''

These are the first talks since the lockout was put in place on Sept. 16 and they came a day after the league canceled the remaining preseason games. The regular season is to start Oct. 11.

If a deal isn't reached soon, regular-season games will be in danger of being lost. The NHL canceled the entire 2004-05 season because of a lockout that eventually led to the collective bargaining agreement that expired this month.

``The calendar continues to tick along,'' Daly said. ``My guess is as time goes on, regular-season games are at risk. I don't think it can be any more urgent than where we are now. We've had that level of urgency for a long time. In some respects you can meet all you want, but if there is no compromise or no movement or no new proposals I am not sure at the end of the day what you're meeting over.

``There is a very high degree of urgency certainly on our side. I can't speak for their side, but I am sure they would tell you there is a degree of urgency there, too.''

Steve Fehr contended that the players' association is willing to discuss any issues at any time to try to make a deal soon.

``We can discuss the core issues whenever they want to do it,'' he said. ``Bargaining is not ping pong. There are no rules on who has to serve.''

AP NEWS
The Associated Press News Service

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The Associated Press
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