NHL, NHLPA in talks sans Bettman, Goodenow

Updated: February 19, 2005, 2:09 PM ET
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Several sources have told ESPN The Magazine's EJ Hradek that a deal could be imminent that would un-cancel the 2004-05 season.

The NHL and the players' association restarted talks Saturday at 9 a.m. ET at an undisclosed location in New York after the league requested the sides get together again.

However, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow were not participating in the negotiations.

League sources told TSN of Canada on Saturday the NHL might be prepared to make another offer to the players, but it would contain only "cosmetic" changes to the $42.5 million deal that was presented as a "final offer" on Tuesday night.

On Friday, the Hockey News reported the two sides had reached an agreement in principle that includes a $45 million salary cap.

Asked if there was any way a deal won't get done, a player close to the talks who asked to remain anonymous told The Hockey News, "Not that I can see. I couldn't possibly imagine the idea that somebody is going to try to make a name for themselves in the last minute here."

The players' association, in a message to membership posted on its internal Web site Saturday, said a deal has not been reached. NHL vice president Bernadette Mansur and NHL vice president Bill Daly also have denied that the sides have agreed to a deal in principle. A top bargaining source told ESPN.com that there was no truth "to anything that's out there," in terms of a deal being in place or a firm number for a salary cap.

On Wednesday, commissioner Gary Bettman canceled the season, saying it was too late to play any semblance of a schedule. The cancellation made the NHL the first major North American sports league to lose a full season to a labor dispute.

Or did it?

"I think the timing has always been to get an agreement so that we can play," said New Jersey Devils prsident Lamoriello, who has taken part in previous negotiations. "Right now, it's still get an agreement, and then if we get an agreement, then can we play?

"I think it's a little different than it was before."

In a statement released Friday night, the players' association said the NHL made the offer late Thursday night to get back together. NHL spokesman Frank Brown told ESPN that the league had no comment on the reports.

TSN reported that Daly and NHLPA senior director Ted Saskin would be part of Saturday's meeting, and TSN said Bettman and NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow might not be directly involved.

Both TSN and The Hockey News reported that Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux are in New York taking part in the talks, but the Canadian Press reported it wasn't clear if the two would actually join the official discussions Saturday.

"The way everything has transpired, nothing surprises me," said Lamoriello, who declined to say whether he would be in attendance.

Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, one of the game's senior owners and power brokers, told The Boston Globe for Saturday's editions that the last offer made by the owners remained on the table Friday night.

"We are where we are now," said Jacobs, confirming the deal, with the $42.5 million cap, was still there for the union to accept. "Let's make the most of it. I'd like to see us do something."

One general manager told The Hockey News that Bettman used the cancellation to force Goodenow's hand -- i.e., if Goodenow thought he could maintain his reputation of being a successful deadline hunter, he was wrong.

Hradek reported that even if an agreement is reached, there is no guarantee a season will be played this year.

There hadn't been any official contact between the NHL and the players' association since Tuesday night -- when the sides traded what they said were final offers.

All proposals were rejected, and Bettman went ahead and canceled the season Wednesday at a news conference that was scheduled two days earlier.

The Canadian Press reported that some players, owners and general managers agreed $45 million was the magic cap number to get a deal done. But, according to the CP, neither side initiated talks in the last 12 hours leading up to the cancellation.

"I don't think anything was premature. It was a necessity," Lamoriello said. "It didn't appear to be going anywhere and there was too much jockeying going on.

"Right now, there's a chance of people getting down to possibly getting this done," he said.

Bettman said in a letter to Goodenow on Tuesday that the league's salary cap proposal of $42.5 million was as far as he could go and that there was no time or flexibility for negotiation.

Goodenow sent a letter back, proposing a soft cap at $49 million that could be exceeded by as much as 10 percent by teams twice during the course of the six-year deal.

It appeared there was momentum toward reaching a deal and that the season had a chance to be saved, since the sides were only $6.5 million apart on their cap numbers. But talking ceased after each side sent two letters to the other on Tuesday night.

"A lot of players, owners, managers saw how close the two negotiating teams got to a deal and I think people are just exploring if that can be explored any more," agent Pat Morris said Friday. "I don't know if it'll have a successful conclusion."

There were big breakthroughs Monday in Niagara Falls, N.Y., when the NHL agreed to drop its demand that player costs be linked to league revenues and the union, in turn, came off its steadfast opposition to a salary cap.

"We got through the philosophical end of it, so there's a better chance, but I think there is still a lot of work that has to be done and it still takes some time," Lamoriello said.

Bettman said the NHL couldn't afford the union's final proposal and said if all 30 teams spent $49 million on player costs, then more money would be paid out to players than last season.

Rumors began to swirl on Thursday, once the realization set in that the season had indeed been canceled.

"A lot of players, owners, managers saw how close the two negotiating teams got to a deal and I think people are just exploring if that can be explored any more," agent Pat Morris said Friday. "I don't know if it'll have a successful conclusion."

Bettman said the NHL couldn't afford the union's final proposal and said if all 30 teams spent $49 million on player costs, then more money would be paid out to players than last season.

The commissioner said that teams lost more than $1.8 billion over 10 years, the last time a collective bargaining agreement was reached. The previous lockout cut the 1994-95 season down to 48 games per team.

NHL clubs claim to have lost $273 million in 2002-03 and $224 million last season.

Bettman said a deal would have to be in the drafting stages by the end of last weekend if there was going to be time to play a 28-game season and a standard 16-team postseason.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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