Secret meeting yields no progress

Updated: February 10, 2005, 12:04 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

NEW YORK -- With just a little bit of hedging, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman all but issued a drop-dead date for saving what's left of the season: this weekend.

The lockout reached its 147th day Wednesday. If a deal is reached, Bettman said, there would be a 28-game regular season and the 16-team playoff structure would be preserved.

"It is clear to me that if we're not working on a written document by this weekend, I don't see how we can play any semblance of a season," Bettman said. "Obviously we will listen to everything the union has to say, but we've given all we can give and gone as far as we can go."

Hours earlier, the players' association rejected what was described by the league as a compromise proposal during a secret meeting in Toronto, NHL chief legal officer Bill Daly said.

"The NHL delivered a one-page concept to us which they tried to suggest represented a compromise," players' association executive director Bob Goodenow said. "The league's proposal was a transparent attempt to impose on our Dec. 9 proposal the effects of their twice-rejected Feb. 2 triple-cap proposal."

Bettman and Daly had dinner late Wednesday night with Goodenow and players' association senior director Ted Saskin but there were no formal discussions, a source close to the negotiations told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

The group planned to meet again in Toronto on Thursday morning.

Goodenow said they would try to figure out new ways to get over the main stumbling block of a salary cap but added that the players' association won't hand over a new proposal Thursday.

"We'll have conversations about these difficult areas and see if we can't come up with an idea, a framework or a mechanism for some common ground," Goodenow said. "The prospect that we'd be able to conclude an agreement by the end of the weekend is very daunting.

"It is possible, but I don't want to discuss the levels of probability."

Earlier Wednesday, newspaper reports indicated that the two sides even differ as to when the drop-dead date should be.

NHL executives have calculated they need to have a general agreement by Tuesday and start the season around Feb. 25, according to the Los Angeles Times, which quoted unidentified sources. The players, however, believe there should be a week or more left before last-ditch negotiating is required, the Toronto Star reported. According to the newspaper, the players -- and many observers -- think the league likely would be willing to settle for a 30-game season, one that wouldn't have to start until about March 1.

The lockout has wiped out 813 of the 1,230 regular-season games, as well as this weekend's scheduled All-Star Game. If the season is canceled, there is no telling when there will be NHL hockey again.

Bettman and Daly visited the players' association office in Toronto on Wednesday. The union made it clear that it wasn't going to initiate new talks this week, so the league took a new offer to the players.

It wasn't received well.

"It's really not whether there's a better deal or a worse deal -- it's the right deal, it's the fair deal," Goodenow said. "We've always been focused on those principles."

The NHL handed over what it called "a compromise proposal."

The NHL offered to go with the players' association proposal from Dec. 9 that featured a luxury-tax system and an immediate 24 percent rollback on all existing contracts.

But the league also put in place four scenarios that would shift the agreement back to what the league proposed on Feb. 2 -- a salary cap that would force teams to spend at least $32 million on player costs but no more than $42 million, including benefits.

Also included in that six-year 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.

"The union's response was that this was not a framework that they were interested in going forward with," Bettman said.

Goodenow said that one of the four limits would immediately be exceeded if this deal was put in place, and others could be easily reached.

"The deal can only get worse, from a technical matter and as an economic matter, the longer we go without a new deal," Bettman said. "That's not a threat, that's simply the reality of where we find ourselves."

It was believed that there had been no contact between the sides since last Friday when talks broke off after three straight days of meetings.

The bulk of the negotiations since mid-December were conducted mostly by Daly and Saskin.

Bettman and Goodenow were invited by the union back to the table last week for two days of talks after the union rejected the league's previous proposal. Those four were the only people involved in Wednesday's session.

The NHL has been intent on making a deal that provides a link between league revenues and player costs. The players' association has steadfastly refused to accept a salary cap as a solution to the stalemate.

"We really gave this our best shot," Bettman said. "This is what we really believe we need."

Bettman would rather not have the mark of the NHL's being the first North American sports league to lose an entire season to a labor dispute on his record, but he cautioned that the right deal is necessary for the NHL to survive.

"This has just been a very difficult, frustrating process and again we're sorry we have to go through it," he said. "But we had no choice."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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