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Bettman, Goodenow to rejoin talks Thursday

2/2/2005

NEW YORK -- Nearly five months into the NHL lockout, the
players' association still won't accept the league's demand for a
salary cap. The league says it's too late to talk about
alternatives.

And now time is about to run out on the hockey season.

The union needed only a few hours Wednesday to reject the latest
league proposal that would place minimums and maximums on what the
30 clubs can spend on player costs. That didn't quite put an end to
the hope for hockey, but it sure pushed that prospect to the
forefront.

"If we're trying to meaningfully and reliably reduce player
costs, we believe there are a number of ways that you can do that
and it's not only through a salary cap," NHLPA senior director Ted
Saskin said.

The players' association invited the league back to the
negotiating table for another meeting Thursday, but neither side
showed any real hope that progress could be made now -- even if NHL
commissioner Gary Bettman and union chief Bob Goodenow are making a
return to the talks.

Bettman and Goodenow haven't taken part in negotiations since
Dec. 14, when the players' association rejected a counterproposal
to an offer it made five days earlier. In the past two weeks, the
sides held five small-group discussions without the leaders.

That hasn't helped move the process closer to a settlement,
either.

"We're at the end time-wise in terms of being able to continue
this process and still play games this season, so there's not a lot
of room flexibility-wise," said Bill Daly, the NHL's chief legal
officer.

It is unclear what will happen Thursday in New York when Bettman
and Daly join Goodenow and Saskin. The players' association doesn't
want a salary cap, and the NHL said there is no time to talk about
something else.

"There isn't much in this offer that's attractive to us or that
we consider fair or necessary for the sport," Saskin said. "I
don't want to mislead anyone and suggest I'm optimistic at this
point in time."

The way things are going, there might not be time for the sides
to reach an agreement to save the 2005-06 season.

The sides met Wednesday for four hours in Newark, N.J., the
fifth time in two weeks they've talked. The NHL is in danger of
becoming the first major North American sports league to lose an
entire season to a labor dispute.

"They asked for a meeting again tomorrow, and we'll see what
they have to say," Daly said. "The proposal was put together with
their interests in mind, what they've communicated to us across the
table."

The lockout reached its 140th day Wednesday, and has forced the
cancellation of 762 of the 1,230 regular-season games plus the
All-Star game.

The NHL proposed a six-year deal that contained a cap that would
force teams to spend at least $32 million on player costs but no
more than $42 million -- including benefits.

This offer will not be presented to the players for a full vote,
since Saskin said it's nowhere near what the association is looking
for.

"There hasn't been a change on what we recognize as being the
critical issue," Saskin said.

Bettman has said that teams lost a total of more than $1.8
billion over 10 years and that management will not agree to a deal
without a defined relationship between revenue and salaries.

Last season's average salary was $1.8 million, and the NHL wants
to push that back with a salary cap. This offer would give players
between 53 and 55 percent of league revenues.

An economic study commissioned by the NHL found that players got
75 percent of league revenues. The union has challenged many of the
league's financial findings.

If a deal is reached in time for hockey to be played this year,
the NHL proposed that players would still receive 53 percent of
revenues generated from a full playoff schedule that would follow a
shortened regular season.

Also included in the offer -- which could be reopened by the
union after four years -- was a profit-sharing plan that would allow
the players' association to evenly split revenues over a negotiated
level with the league.

On Dec. 9, the players' association proposed a luxury-tax system
with an immediate 24 percent rollback on all existing contracts.
The NHL liked the idea, but called that offer a short-term fix.

That portion of the union's plan, however, was accepted and
included in the league's new proposal.

An entry-level contract cap of $850,000 -- including bonuses --
also was proposed by the NHL. That would return the ceiling to that
of the 1995 draft class. Last season, the cap on entry-level
contracts was $1.295 million.

The four-year, two-way contracts would also cap bonuses for each
year of the deals. The league has proposed giving its own bonuses
to entry-level players who finish in the top five in voting for the
Hart, Norris, Vezina and Selke awards -- including $500,000 for
winning each award.

Players would gain unrestricted free agency at 30 instead of 31,
starting with the 2006-07 season. That age would drop to 28 if the
NHL elects to eliminate salary arbitration during the course of the
deal.

The minimum salary would be raised 62 percent to $300,000 per
year, and guaranteed contracts would remain in existence but would
be limited to three-year deals.

The league agreed to retain arbitration, a change from its Dec.
14 counterproposal, but the NHL wants to make it so teams can take
players to arbitration instead of it being a one-way process.

The NHL has been operating under the same collective bargaining
agreement since 1995, when the last lockout went 103 days before a
48-game season was played.

"We have lived with a system that has been incredibly
inflationary and caused dramatic, league-wide losses over the last
10 years," Daly said. "We only know one way to fix that."

The Stanley Cup has been awarded every year since 1919, when a
flu epidemic wiped out the final series between Montreal and
Seattle.