NHL labor talks to resume today

Posted: Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Get together a small group of representatives from NHL management and the players' union and try to find some middle ground that would jump-start talks toward ending the 125-day lockout.

That is, try to do what previous, more formal negotiations couldn't.

And so on Wednesday, six people — three from each side — will meet in Chicago for this very purpose. Failure to produce even some movement, likely will signal the end of any hopes that the season can be saved.

Through Tuesday, 655 of the 1,230 regular-season games were canceled as was next month's All-Star game.

''I don't think tomorrow is necessarily the last chance,'' Bill Daly, the NHL's chief legal officer told The Associated Press on Tuesday. ''I do think we're in a critical period, there is no doubt about it. I think we not only need to make progress but move toward a resolution and come to a resolution very soon in order for there to be hockey to be played this season.''

What's more interesting about the meeting is who won't be present.

Linden reached out to the league by inviting Harley Hotchkiss, the chairman of the NHL board of governors, to sit down and talk without NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and union head Bob Goodenow in the room.

''I think the dynamic of having Trevor Linden there with Harley Hotchkiss will be a new dynamic but I don't think it's atypical or abnormal at all for these types of discussions to be occurring,'' Daly said.

Linden didn't immediately return several phone messages left for him.

Daly will join Hotchkiss, a Calgary Flames part owner, and outside counsel Bob Batterman in representing the NHL; Linden, NHLPA senior director Ted Saskin, and outside counsel John McCambridge will take part for the players.

Linden isn't bringing a new proposal with him and he isn't looking for great attention. It wasn't until late Tuesday that word filtered out that the meeting would take place in Chicago.

Saskin said the players won't present a new proposal Wednesday but added that the union is ''committed to reaching a fair deal that does not include a salary cap.''

Daly has maintained that the owners aren't prepared to make a new offer, either, since they put forth the last one.

''Nothing has changed at this point,'' Daly said. ''A lot will depend now as to what happens tomorrow whether that changes the dynamics in any material way.''

There have been no talks since Dec. 14. It was then that the sides sat down for the second time in six days after not meeting for three months, but any optimism was lost quickly.

The players presented a proposal that offered an immediate 24 percent rollback on all existing contracts, but since it didn't provide cost certainty it was rejected by the owners.

A counterproposal was then presented by the NHL. Once the players' association saw that the offer included a salary cap, it was turned down immediately. Since then, other than rhetoric, there has been silence.

Until now.

Without Bettman and Goodenow, the hope is that Linden and Hotchkiss can talk one-on-one and break through where the leaders could not.

The critical issue keeping the sides apart is how to help the 30 NHL teams from losing large sums of money. How much is being lost is central to the dispute, but both sides agree that changes are necessary.

Owners want cost certainty, which has been interpreted by the players to mean a salary cap. That is a solution the union refuses to accept.

The players have proposed the contract rollback and a luxury-tax system. Bettman has said the salary cuts would help as a one-time fix but doesn't believe it would cure the problems over the long term.

A luxury tax is something that has never interested the commissioner.

''I'm prepared and we've always been prepared to talk about anything,'' Daly said. ''We have very firm views with respect to what's needed in terms of an economic system to make this league healthy long term.

''We have also said that we are willing to negotiate and compromise over anything. With that mind-set and approach we will approach this meeting. We have a very open mind. We think that we can be creative within that framework to design a system that is going to work for the players, be fair to the players and obviously be fair to the clubs and allow us all to be successful in continuing to grow this business.''

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