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NHL, union to meet again on Friday

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NEW YORK (AP) - The best that can be said about the ongoing NHL labor negotiations is that they are still going, and will continue for at least a fourth straight day.

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The league and the locked-out players' association got back together Thursday and accomplished enough over five-plus hours to make plans to meet again Friday.

``I am not going to discuss the negotiations or the substance of what we're talking about,'' NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said Thursday on a wind-blown street corner. ``I really don't think that would be helpful to the process.

``We have work to do, and my hope is that we can achieve the goal of getting a long-term, fair agreement in place as quickly as possible so we can play hockey.''

Players' association executive director Donald Fehr didn't rule out talks stretching into the weekend, too.

``All I can tell you is we have been meeting, and we will be meeting again (Friday),'' he said. ``I can't say more than that. We haven't talked about (the weekend), but if there is something to talk about then I expect we will be.''

The lockout reached its 54th day, and this week is considered critical for the season to be saved. The work stoppage is threatening to force the second cancellation of an NHL season in seven years.

Even if an agreement is reached soon, it isn't clear if any of this season's games that have been called off through Nov. 30 can be rescheduled. The NHL has already said a full 82-game season won't be played.

``Every day that passes, I think, is critical for the game and for our fans,'' Bettman said.

During a second consecutive day of marathon negotiations Wednesday, the players' association made an offer on revenue sharing, in which richer teams would help out poorer organizations, and another proposal regarding the ``make-whole'' provision that would guarantee full payment of all existing multiyear player contracts.

``There have been discussions over a wide range of topics,'' Fehr said, while occupying the same location on the street that Bettman did. ``We're recessed for the night and we will be getting back together tomorrow. I am not going to comment in the substance of the discussions.''

Fehr also declined to say if he felt progress was made in the latest long round of discussions at a Manhattan law firm - the location of the negotiations that had been kept secret until Thursday.

``I am not going to characterize it except to say, as I have before, that its always better when you're meeting than when you're not,'' he said.

Thursday's discussions marked the fourth time in six days that face-to-face negotiations have taken place after both sides rejected proposals Oct. 18. The lockout, which began Sept. 16 after the collective bargaining agreement expired, has forced the cancellation of 327 regular-season games, including the New Year's Day Winter Classic in Michigan.

It was unclear if the NHL made counterproposals to offers it received from the union on Wednesday. The belief is that the players' association has agreed to a 50-50 split of hockey-related revenues, but that even division wouldn't kick in until the third year of the deal.

``Collective bargaining is a process, and it has peaks and valleys and ebbs and flows,'' Bettman said. ``It is very tough to handicap.''

It was also difficult for the NHL and the union to keep the location of the talks hidden. On Thursday it was revealed that negotiations were being conducted at the law offices of Proskauer Rose - the firm of NHL lead counsel Bob Batterman.

Revenue sharing and the make-whole provision are major hurdles in the way of making a deal. On Wednesday, the sides spent more than five hours dealing with the most contentious areas. Coupled with the more than seven hours they spent negotiating Tuesday, owners and players were together about 13 hours this week before reconvening Thursday.

There is clearly still much to be done to work out the differences to reach a deal that will allow the already delayed and shortened season to begin.

Along with a handful of team owners, eight players attended Wednesday's talks, five fewer than Tuesday. Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby and others left New York to try to avoid the impending snowstorm that hit the area, the union said.

On Thursday, seven players were in attendance, according to the NHLPA, and at least three owners.

In October, the players' association responded to an NHL offer with three of its own, but all of those were quickly dismissed by the league. That led to nearly three weeks without face-to-face discussions, although the parties kept in regular contact by phone.

Both sides have made proposals that included a 50-50 split of hockey-related revenues. The NHL has moved toward the players' side in the ``make-whole'' provision and whose share of the economic pie that money will come from.

Along with the split of hockey-related revenue and other core economic issues, contract lengths, arbitration and free agency also must be agreed upon.

The union accepted a salary cap in the previous labor pact, which wasn't reached until after the entire 2004-05 season was canceled because of a lockout. The union doesn't want to absorb the majority of concessions this time after the NHL had record revenue that exceeded $3 billion last season.

AP NEWS
The Associated Press News Service

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The Associated Press
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