Conversations restart; NHL negotiations on hold
NEW YORK (AP) - The conversations have restarted in the ongoing NHL labor fight. The negotiations have not.
One step at a time in the roller-coaster ride that holds the hockey season in the balance.
A day after NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman suggested to players' association chief Donald Fehr that the sides take a two-week break from seemingly fruitless bargaining, talking resumed Friday - albeit from afar.
Deputy commissioner Bill Daly spoke briefly with union special counsel Steve Fehr, and they were expected to have further discussions during the weekend to talk about the next steps in bargaining.
It was unclear if any progress was made yet in the discussions.
"I wouldn't characterize it,'' Daly told The Associated Press in an email Friday night. "Nothing else noteworthy.''
The day wasn't expected to produce positive results following Thursday night's revelation that the NHL floated the idea of taking time off in discussions. No official answer was given by the players that they accepted or rejection Bettman's suggestion, but they repeated their willingness to bargain anytime and their belief that negotiating is the only way an agreement can ever be reached.
If the NHL and the players' association have run out of things to talk about, how can they ever find a way to make a deal to save the hockey season?
It is a question both sides seem to have trouble answering, and not because they are being guarded or coy. The lockout is in its third month, and there is no obvious path to progress.
There was a hint of optimism last week when the league and locked-out players met a few times, but the view quickly became bleak. After a one-day break, the sides met Sunday. That brief return to the table also turned badly quickly. They haven't met - and have barely talked - since then.
Frustration and a hint of anger have entered the equation. So perhaps a cooling-off period would make some sense before the sides agree to get together again.
"I think what you have seen is disappointment with where we find ourselves in the process,'' Daly said. "I don't think it's a case of personal animosity.''
Now that Daly and Steve Fehr have resumed discussions with each other, maybe it will be less than two weeks before negotiations resume. At this point, any contact qualifies as good news.
Staying apart could pose a problem because time has become a major factor. All games through Nov. 30 have already been taken off the schedule, more cancellations are likely within a week, the Winter Classic has been wiped out, the All-Star game is the next big event in jeopardy, and the whole season could be lost, too, in the blink of an eye.
Daly said Thursday that he is more discouraged now that at any other point in the process.
"Of course everyone on the players' side wants to reach an agreement,'' Steve Fehr said Thursday night. "The players have offered the owners concessions worth about a billion dollars. What exactly have the owners offered the players? We believe that it is more likely that we will make progress if we meet than if we don't. So we are ready to meet.
"If indeed they do not want to meet, it will be at least the third time in the last three months that they have shut down the dialogue, saying they will not meet unless the players meet their preconditions. What does that tell you about their interest in resolving this?''
That came in response to Bettman's suggestion of a break, and other comments by Daly about the tenor of the discussions between the sides.
"Gary suggested the possibility of a two-week moratorium,'' Daly said. "I'm disappointed because we don't have a negotiating partner that has any genuine interest in reaching an agreement. Zero interest.''
The NHL contends that the union has submitted the same proposal multiple times without moving in the league's direction. The union says it has agreed to come down from receiving 57 percent of hockey-related revenues to a 50-50 split. The league wants that to go into effect in the first year of the agreement, while the union wants to get there gradually.
Back in 2005, after the entire 2004-05 season was lost to a lockout, the players' association accepted a salary-cap system for the first time and feels it shouldn't have to bear the brunt of the concessions now after league revenues reached a record high of over $3 billion last season.
"In `04, the gap was huge,'' said Rangers forward Brad Richards, who attended last week's bargaining sessions. "Very frustrating. Didn't expect to go on this long, didn't need for it to go on this long. They want to create this view that we're so far apart. Only one way to get a deal done. That's the only tactic they know.''
Richards organized a benefit skate Friday to help in the relief efforts on Staten Island after Superstorm Sandy, and was joined by several of his teammates. Richards, who signed with the Rangers last offseason, and led them to the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference last postseason partnered with a high school team to organize "Skating for Sandy.''
This 62-day lockout has claimed 327 regular-season games, and hope of a new deal and the start of the already-shortened season - likely of 68 games per team - on Dec. 1 has been dashed.
Rangers forward Marian Gaborik sees little benefit in taking a break from negotiations.
"I don't know what his mindset is,'' he said about Bettman.
It is more than just finances preventing a deal. The disagreements over player contract terms have emerged as just as big an impasse.
The NHL wants to limit contracts to five years, make rules to prohibit back-diving contracts the league feels circumvent the salary cap, keep players ineligible for unrestricted free agency until they are 28 or have eight years of professional service time, cut entry-level deals to two years, and make salary arbitration after five years.
Players missed their third pay day of the season Thursday, and the clock is ticking toward more losses. The 2004-05 season was canceled in February. A lockout in 1995 ended in January, leading to a 48-game schedule.
"Different,'' Gaborik said about this lockout. "The union is much stronger. We have a leader we believe in.''
Freelance writer Denis Gorman contributed to this report.
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