Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Still no movement in NHL labor talks

By Ira Podell
The Associated Press

NEW YORK - The NHL and the players association moved no closer to a collective bargaining agreement during a five-hour meeting Tuesday. In fact, the sides even took a slight detour.

During the third negotiating session in six weeks, the NHLPA formally rejected six proposed concepts put forth by the league that were discussed in the previous two meetings. Talks then shifted to a general discussion of league and specific team economics and operations.

"Today can be more fairly characterized as a side step in the process," NHLPA senior director Ted Saskin said after a meeting in New Jersey near Newark Airport. "We'll have further discussions so that hopefully we can find areas where we are in agreement and build from there."

The next talks will take place over two days next week in Ottawa, then resume Aug. 30 and Sept. 1 in Montreal, which will host World Cup of Hockey games on those nights.

The two-week tournament, a joint venture between the NHL and the NHLPA, closes with the championship game in Toronto on Sept. 14. The current contract between the league and its players expires the next day.

"We told the players association that we would make ourselves available every day between now and the end of the collective bargaining agreement to try to get this resolved," said Bill Daly, the NHL's chief legal officer.

"To us, there's nothing more important than negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement. While, obviously, we both want the World Cup to be successful, it should be secondary to the overriding objective which is to spend as much time as is necessary to try to talk this through and get a resolution."

Saskin also expressed a willingness to have regular meetings. If a new deal isn't in place by Sept. 15, a lockout is expected to be imposed.

As each fruitless meeting wraps up, a hockey shutdown becomes more likely.

"No proposals were discussed or exchanged," Saskin said. "We had dialogue on both team-specific and industry issues and will continue the dialogue in our next meeting.

"I would not characterize today's meeting as having made any progress in any direction."

Neither the NHL's six proposed concepts nor the NHLPA's framework that was put forth in a meeting last Oct. 1 were discussed Tuesday. Instead of furthering discussions in those areas, known to be of little interest to the opposing side, the talks took a new course.

"They said they wanted to get a better understanding of our views with respect to how the system impacts the way our teams operate," Daly said.

So much of the dispute boils down to philosophical differences. The NHLPA contends that the six concepts floated by the NHL contain a salary cap, an idea the union says it will never accept.

Daly countered that only one idea is based on a salary-cap structure.

"My view is a maximum team payroll that applies to all the teams," he said. "Apparently they have changed that traditional definition of a salary cap. What I would tell you is I think anything that's not the status quo, they believe is a salary cap."

Saskin was quick to refute that. He doesn't think there is a difference in opinion of what a salary cap is. The NHLPA is not against changing the current economic system, it just doesn't want to do it the way the league has so far suggested.

"I think they understand that we want there to be a marketplace where owners will set players' values based on the individual negotiations," Saskin said. "We understand that they want to tie player costs to a negotiated limit of what they're prepared to negotiate as league revenues."

Of the four major North American sports, only baseball has a luxury tax system. The NFL and NBA have salary caps.

"The six proposals that we've made, we still firmly believe that any one of those six is a way to resolve our issues," Daly said.

The NHLPA is not likely to provide a new proposal next week in Ottawa and Saskin wouldn't divulge a timeline for when a new offer might cross the table. The current deal ended a lockout nine years ago, and the agreement has been extended twice.

The next lockout could be worse than the one that lasted 103 days and cut the 1994-95 season nearly in half. Owners have been preparing for that possibility for the last several years, and have built up a $300 million war chest.

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Still no movement in NHL labor talks

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