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NHL talks wrap up with still no progress

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NEW YORK (AP) - Two days of talks between the NHL, the players' association, and federal mediators still haven't provided any answers how to end the lockout.

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Representatives from the fighting sides made it into the same room with a federal mediator Thursday. They just didn't make any noticeable progress. After a failed day Wednesday when the parties on either end of the hockey labor dispute never met with each other, lawyers from each group spoke face to face Thursday.

They appear no closer to a deal to save the season.

President Barack Obama addressed the stalemate in an interview Thursday with WCCO-TV in Minneapolis.

``My message to owners and to players is, `You guys make a lot of money and you make a lot of money on the backs of fans, so do right by your fans. You can figure out how to spread out a bunch of revenue that you're bringing in, but do right by the people who support you,''' Obama said. ``And I shouldn't have to be involved in a dispute between really wealthy players and even wealthier owners. They should be able to settle this themselves. And remember who it is that's putting all that money in their pockets.''

Players' association special counsel Steve Fehr, who met with league lead counsel Bob Batterman on Thursday, said the sides intend to talk Friday either in person or by phone.

``I expect the mediators will continue to be involved,'' Fehr wrote in an email to The Associated Press. ``Do not want to characterize the discussion today.''

At no point on either day this week did union executive director Donald Fehr meet with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly.

Daly said he expected to talk to Steve Fehr on Friday.

``I'm not sure what the next steps will be,'' Daly told the AP in an email. ``I do expect the mediators to stay involved in terms of monitoring our ongoing negotiations, but at this point there are no further sessions planned. It doesn't appear there was movement by either side on any of the main issues over the last two days.''

Mediators talked to each group separately Wednesday in suburban New Jersey and carried messages back and forth.

The league and union hadn't met since talks fell apart a week ago on the third straight day of negotiations in New York. Mediators rejoined the conversation Wednesday following two failed days last month, but still couldn't achieve a breakthrough.

``There were discussions of the various issues involved and how far apart we are and where we go from here,'' Donald Fehr said Wednesday. ``I can't tell you that any progress was made.''

The latest round of talks was supposed to be held away from reporters and cameras, but the meeting location was quickly revealed Wednesday. Both sides briefly made public statements then in frustrated tones.

When the NHL agreed last week 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.

Bettman then said that the offer was being pulled from the table. Mediators, however, asked the union Wednesday if that proposal was back in play, would the players take it or leave it?

``It wasn't much of a decision,'' said Brendan Morrison, one of 13 players to attend Wednesday's talks. ``I thought the gap would be closed much quicker, but it hasn't come to fruition yet, so we have to keep working.''

The offer wasn't actually resubmitted by the NHL. Neither side made proposals Wednesday.

All games through Dec. 30 have been canceled, 43 percent of the season, along with the New Year's Day Winter Classic and the All-Star game.

After talks ended last Thursday, Donald Fehr began the first of his two news conferences that day by proclaiming he believed the sides had agreements on such issues as actual dollars and a players-funded pension plan. He returned moments later to reveal the NHL rejected everything offered.

The 2004-05 season was lost completely, resulting in the players' association accepting a deal that included a salary cap for the first time. While no such major philosophical disputes exist in these negotiations, the sides still aren't ready to come to an agreement.

``I never thought the issues were as big as they were back in `04-05,'' Morrison said Wednesday. ``Apparently, I was wrong.''

A 48-game season was played in 1995 after a lockout stretched into January. Bettman said he wouldn't have a shorter season than that.

The NHL wants to limit personal player contracts to five years, seven for a club to re-sign its own player and has elevated the issue to the highest level of importance. 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.

The other sticking points the NHL demanded of the players are a 10-year term on the new agreement, with a mutual opt-out option after eight years, and no compliance buyouts or caps on escrow in the transition phase to the new structure. The union presented an offer of an eight-year deal with a reopener after six.

AP NEWS
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The Associated Press
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