NEW YORK (AP) - Hockey fans might have a reason to be a bit optimistic.
The NHL and the players' association are back on speaking terms, are trading ideas, and already have plans to get back together after the first day of face-to-face meetings in nearly three weeks.
The union responded to the NHL's most recent contract proposal with one of their own on Monday. And even before the league had a chance to review it with a fine-toothed comb, the sides decided they would meet again Tuesday.
``We spent a good part of the afternoon with the players' association. They were responding to the proposal we made on Thursday,'' NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said on a cold, wind-blown street outside's the league's New York headquarters. ``Their response was a comprehensive one, dealing with the full slate of issues that we raised and proposals we put forth, and we're in the process of reviewing their response.
``We will contact them (Tuesday) morning and arrange to get back together, hopefully certainly by midday.''
The sides got together for the first time since Dec. 13, and the union brought along a condensed counterproposal in response to the NHL's 288-page contract offer. There were some discussions between the negotiators and some time spent apart in internal caucuses.
``The purpose of the discussion was for us to respond and have them ask a couple questions for us to explain a number of the points we had made,'' union executive director Donald Fehr said. ``We expect to hear from them (Tuesday). We're all staying around.''
Neither side chose to delve into details of what was offered in either proposal nor characterize any of the discussions that Fehr said ``weren't terribly long.''
``There was an opportunity for the players to highlight the areas they thought we should focus on based on their response, and that's something we've got to look at very closely in addition to the myriad of other issues,'' Bettman said. ``The process continues and we're anticipating getting back together.''
The fact that neither offer was quickly dismissed could be taken as a positive sign that perhaps the gap has closed between them.
``I'm out of the prediction business,'' Fehr said. ``You get up every day and you try to figure out how to make an agreement that day, and if it fails you try and do it the next day. That's exactly where we are.''
Bettman also reserved judgment when asked if progress was made.
``I think it would be premature for me to characterize it and not particularly helpful to the process,'' he said.
A crowd of people heading toward New Year's celebrations in New York gathered around the large throng of reporters and television cameras focused in on Bettman and Fehr as the two leaders spoke separately on the busy sidewalk. Both men would rather have the attention back on the ice instead of themselves.
This was the first meeting in nearly three weeks since the last round of negotiations with a federal mediator. After presenting their proposal, union representatives stayed in the building in case there were further discussions - later, with talks done for the day, the union said it expected a response from the NHL on Tuesday morning.
The New Year's clock ticked down while the window to reach a labor agreement to save the season was rapidly closing. Bettman said a deal needs to be reached by Jan. 11.
``We've said we need to drop the puck by Jan. 19 if we're going to play a 48-game season,'' the commissioner said. ``We don't think it makes sense to play a season any shorter than that.''
That leaves a little less than two weeks to reach an agreement and hold one week of training camp before starting the season.
So far, a deal has proved elusive and well out of reach.
The league and the union had informational discussions - by conference call and in meetings - with staff members that lasted much of Saturday and ended Sunday. Those talks were spurred by the extensive contract proposal the NHL made last week.
All games through Jan. 14 have been canceled, claiming more than 50 percent of the original schedule.
Bargaining sessions with only the NHL and union hadn't been held since Dec. 6, when talks abruptly ended after the players' association made a counterproposal. The league said that offer was contingent on the union accepting three elements unconditionally and without further bargaining.
The NHL then pulled all existing offers off the table. Two days of sessions with mediators the following week ended without progress.
The NHL is the only North American professional sports league to cancel a season because of a labor dispute, losing the 2004-05 campaign to a lockout. A 48-game season was played in 1995 after a lockout stretched into January.
It is still possible this dispute eventually could be settled in the courts if the sides can't reach a deal on their own.
The NHL filed a class-action suit this month in U.S. District Court in New York in an effort to show its lockout is legal. In a separate move, the league filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board, contending bad-faith bargaining by the union.
Those moves were made because the players' association took steps toward potentially declaring a ``disclaimer of interest,'' which would dissolve the union and make it a trade association. That would allow players to file antitrust lawsuits against the NHL.
Union members voted overwhelmingly to give their board the power to file the disclaimer by Wednesday. If that deadline passes, another authorization vote could be held to approve a later filing.