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Little talking or movement in NHL fight

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NEW YORK (AP) - If there is going to be a hockey season, the NHL and the players' association can't afford many more days like this.

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A long night of bargaining Wednesday that stretched into the early morning hours didn't end well and likely kept the sides apart for most of the day Thursday. No new full-scale negotiations took place, and outside of a few relatively brief, small sessions on specific topics, it was basically a lost day.

This is now January, and time is limited to reach a deal that would allow for a shortened hockey season. An agreement this week could have led to a 52-game season. That seems all but lost now.

If the sides can't find common ground within the next week, a 48-game season - the shortest NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said the league would play - will become impossible, too.

The tenor of the talks appeared to take a downward turn late Wednesday after the players' association passed on declaring a disclaimer of interest that would have dissolved the union and turned it into a trade association.

The discord carried over to Thursday morning, when Bettman had said he expected to resume negotiations at 10 a.m. at the request of a federal mediator, but the union was holding internal meetings then and didn't arrive at the league office until a few hours later.

And when players and staff did get there, they did so without executive director Donald Fehr. The group discussed a problem that arose regarding the reporting by clubs of hockey-related revenue, and how both sides sign off on the figures at the end of the fiscal year. The union felt the language had been changed without proper notification, but the dispute was solved and the meeting ended in about an hour.

The wait for more elaborate talks went on, and didn't end until the players returned - again without Fehr - for a small meeting about the contentious pension plan. That one lasted just under two hours, and again the waiting game ensued.

But this time there wouldn't be any talks, big or little. Neither side issued a statement, and Bettman was seen leaving league headquarters shortly after 9 p.m.

An NHL spokesman said discussions would resume between the NHL, the union and federal mediator Scot Beckenbaugh on Friday morning.

The players' association held a late afternoon conference call to initiate another vote among union membership that would give the executive board the power to invoke a disclaimer of interest.

Members gave overwhelming approval last month, but the union declined to disclaim before a self-imposed deadline Wednesday night. It wasn't immediately known when a new authorization would expire. Players are expected to have 48 hours to vote, as opposed to the five days they were given the first time.

With the lockout in its 110th day, both sides understand the urgency to save a shortened season. They have several key issues to work out - pensions and salary cap limits, among them.

Bettman has said a deal needs to be in place by next week so a 48-game season can begin Jan. 19. All games through Jan. 14 along with the All-Star game have been canceled, claiming more than 50 percent of the original schedule.

It was believed the union wouldn't take action Wednesday if it saw progress being made. Neither side would characterize the talks or say if there was any movement toward common ground.

``There's been some progress but we're still apart on a number of issues,'' Bettman said Wednesday. ``As long as the process continues I am hopeful.''

That optimism took a hit on Thursday.

The NHLPA filed a motion in federal court in New York seeking to dismiss the league's suit to have the lockout declared legal. The NHL sued the union in mid-December, figuring the players were about to submit their own complaint against the league and possibly break up their union to gain an upper hand.

But the union argued that the NHL is using this suit ``to force the players to remain in a union. Not only is it virtually unheard of for an employer to insist on the unionization of its employees, it is also directly contradicted by the rights guaranteed to employees under ... the National Labor Relations Act.''

The court scheduled a status conference for the sides on Monday morning.

That would still give them time to get back to the table and reach a deal. There won't be one, however, if they can't resolve the differences regarding the players' pension.

Bettman called the pension plan a ``very complicated issue.''

``The number of variables and the number of issues that have to be addressed by people who carry the title actuary or pension lawyer are pretty numerous and it's pretty easy to get off track,'' Bettman said. ``That is something we understand is important to the players.''

The union's proposal Wednesday made it four offers between the sides since the NHL restarted negotiations with a proposal a week ago. The league presented the players with a counteroffer Tuesday night in response to one the union made Monday.

Fehr believed an agreement on a players-funded pension had been reached before talks blew up in early December. That apparently wasn't the case, or the NHL has changed its offer regarding the pension in exchange for agreeing to other things the union wanted.

The salary-cap number for the second year of the deal - the 2013-14 season - hasn't been established, and it is another point of contention. The league is pushing for a $60 million cap, while the union wants it to be $65 million.

In return for the higher cap number players would be willing to forgo a cap on escrow.

``We talk about lots of things and we even had some philosophical discussions about why particular issues were important to each of us,'' Bettman said. ``That is part of the process.''

Both sides seem content on the deal lasting for 10 years, but they have different opinions on whether an opt-out should be allowed to be exercised after seven years or eight.

The NHL proposed in its first offer on Dec. 27 that pension contributions come out of the players' share of revenues, and $50 million of the league's make-whole payment of $300 million will be allocated and set aside to fund potential underfunded liabilities of the plan at the end of the collective bargaining agreement.

Last month, the NHL agreed to raise its make-whole offer of deferred payments from $211 million to $300 million as part of a proposed package that required the union to agree on three nonnegotiable points. Instead, the union accepted the raise in funds, but then made counterproposals on the issues the league stated had no wiggle room.

``As you might expect, the differences between us relate to the core economic issues which don't involve the share,'' Fehr said of hockey-related revenue, which likely will be split 50-50.

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.

AP NEWS
The Associated Press News Service

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The Associated Press
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