Meetings to continue Thursday night

Updated: January 27, 2005, 4:35 PM ET news services

The NHL and the players' association were still talking.

With the season on the brink of being canceled, negotiations were planned Thursday night in New York with the chance of another get-together Friday.

Representatives from both sides met for about 5½ hours in small groups for the third time in a week on Wednesday. All that is known about the meeting is that it took place somewhere in Toronto. The location was kept secret, and there was no indication whether progress had been made to end the lockout and save the hockey season.

It marked the second straight week both sides met on consecutive days. If enough progress was made Thursday, talks were expected to resume Friday.

The lockout reached its 134th day Thursday and has forced the cancellation of 721 of the 1,230 regular-season games plus the All-Star Game. If an agreement isn't reached soon, the NHL will likely become the first North American sports league to lose an entire season to a labor dispute.

For the second time this week, rumors swirled that the NHL was prepared to make another proposal to the players' association. Bill Daly, the league's chief legal officer, declined comment Thursday afternoon.

If a new offer is pushed across the table, it would be the first since mid-December when the union invited the league back to negotiations with a proposal that featured a 24 percent rollback of all existing contracts and a luxury-tax system.

The league countered five days later with a salary-cap structure, a concept the NHL is insisting on and one the players' association says it will never accept. The NHL wants a direct link between player salaries and league revenues.

Whatever happened Thursday night, it was expected that the same small groups of negotiators were talking. It would be the fourth straight negotiating session without commissioner Gary Bettman and union chief Bob Goodenow.

It was Vancouver center Trevor Linden who came up with the idea last week to talk with just six people in the room. Linden, the NHLPA president, invited Harley Hotchkiss -- the chairman of the board of governors to talks that started last Wednesday in Chicago and concluded the following day in Toronto. Hotchkiss missed the second meeting to attend a funeral in Calgary.

The structure was successful in producing discussion, but it did nothing to close the gap in the philosophical differences. The NHL still wants cost certainty, the players' association a free-market system.

In a new twist, New Jersey Devils president and general manager Lou Lamoriello joined regulars Daly, Hotchkiss -- a part-owner of the Calgary Flames -- and outside counsel Bob Batterman on the NHL side in Toronto on Wednesday.

"I really don't have any comments," Lamoriello said in a phone interview from New Jersey on Thursday. "When this process is on, I think the comments should come only from the people who are spokespeople."

He did say that time was short.

"I don't think it takes someone in or out of the hockey world to know where the clock is at," Lamoriello told the Canadian Press. "Every effort from both sides has to be made."

The players' association has kept its team of Linden, senior director Ted Saskin and outside counsel John McCambridge the same for all four small-group sessions.

So closely guarded are the smallest details from the league's latest round of talks with the players' association, that exactly what they're still talking about is anyone's guess.

The small-group format was created with the hope that the sides could find common ground that would lead to a new collective bargaining agreement.

Both sides believe they will have a better chance of getting something accomplished if they can talk out of the public eye.

Although no details were immediately available, neither side planned to make a new proposal on Wednesday because the participants wanted to generate ideas through an open dialogue instead of working on a formal proposal.

"I think the setup of these meetings is what's important in terms of the small-group dynamic, the open discussion and dialogue," Daly told the AP on Tuesday night. "It's less formal or structured than the meetings we've had in the past, and I think that's helpful to the process."

But time is running short to make a deal and save the season.

"We're in a critical stage, and that means we're down to days," Daly told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "We'll try to move the process forward and try to get a resolution."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.