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Union set to respond Wednesday to offer

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NEW YORK (AP) - The NHL has kicked the ball back to the players' association in the form of another counteroffer as the sides play pingpong in the search for labor peace.

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The proposal was presented Tuesday night in a 30-minute meeting that was long delayed as the league worked on its response to the union's counteroffer Monday. The NHL started this latest round of talks with a contract offer late last week.

That spurred negotiations to resume Monday after the sides spent nearly three weeks apart. They were back together throughout Tuesday in smaller groups before the main negotiating teams met briefly at night when the NHL made its new offer.

``They did make a comprehensive response to what we gave them,'' players' association executive director Donald Fehr said. ``We asked a couple of questions. Now what we have to do is go through the document, try to make some sense out of it, compare it and see what the appropriate thing is to do next.''

After reviewing the document later Tuesday night, Fehr planned to get back in touch with the NHL on Wednesday morning and expected to meet with the league for a third straight day.

``I am reasonably certain of it,'' Fehr said.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman declined to provide details of the league's latest offer, but said it addressed specific areas the union requested.

``There were certain things that the players' association asked for that we agreed to, there were some things that we moved in their direction, and there were other things that we said no,'' he said. ``That's part of the process.''

But it's a process that has limited time to be completed. Bettman said Monday the NHL has told the union a deal needs to be in place by Jan. 11 so a 48-game season can begin eight days later.

It is unclear how many issues still need to be resolved and how far apart the sides are in key areas.

``Nobody is counting,'' Bettman said. ``We're not trying to keep score, we're trying to get an agreement.''

Both sides agreed that it is a positive sign they are getting into a rhythm of talking and meeting and exchanging ideas on a regular basis.

``It is better to be meeting than not. I am not saying anything more about it,'' Fehr said.

The only way to bridge the gaps to a deal that would save the season is to keep working at it together.

``The fact that we're involved in a continuous process is something that I am glad to see, but we're clearly not done yet,'' Bettman said. ``It's up to the players' association to come back to us now in response to what they have been given this evening.''

Small groups from each side met and conferred by conference calls all afternoon about provisions of a potential collective bargaining agreement. A full meeting of the negotiating teams didn't begin until 9 p.m. and wrapped up relatively quickly after the NHL presented its counterproposal.

The afternoon sessions were more for informational purposes.

``Those were more technical,'' Bettman said. ``There were a variety of issues where there weren't what I would call negotiations. It was understanding what each side was looking for, explaining what the issues were that were being discussed just to make sure there was a common understanding.''

There is a little less than two weeks left to reach an agreement and hold one week of training camp before starting the season. All games through Jan. 14 have been canceled, claiming more than 50 percent of the original schedule.

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.

The NHL was supposed to be celebrating its annual outdoor Winter Classic between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday - the 108th day of the lockout - at Michigan Stadium. But that game was canceled long ago along with the All-Star game.

When the sides met Monday, for the first time since Dec. 13, the union brought 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 meetings.

It is still possible this dispute eventually could be settled in the courts if the sides can't reach a deal.

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.

If progress in negotiations is made Wednesday, it seems likely that the union will let its self-imposed deadline pass with a disclaimer declaration.

AP NEWS
The Associated Press News Service

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The Associated Press
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