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Meeting place still a secret

3/10/2005

NEW YORK -- The next round of NHL talks were scheduled
quickly and will be held quietly.

Just over three weeks after the hockey season was canceled, the
league and the players' association will return to the bargaining
table Friday, a source with knowledge of the discussions told The
Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

But everything else about the meeting is still a secret.

"We intend to treat it confidentially because we don't see the
need or the benefit of media scrutiny or glare on this meeting,"
NHL chief legal officer Bill Daly said Wednesday at the World
Congress of Sports.

Daly and players' association senior director Ted Saskin took
part in a labor-related panel at the conference, but the
negotiators talked more at each other than to one another.

They will, however, be back at the bargaining table soon, along
with their bosses: commissioner Gary Bettman and union executive
director Bob Goodenow.

"Depending on the approach taken, that will impact how it moves
forward," Saskin said.

Daly and Saskin answered questions separately Wednesday, and
stated and debated their respective positions. The sides haven't
met for negotiations since Feb. 19, three days after Bettman
canceled the season.

"I'm not prepared to give you an agenda, but a lot of it will
be determined once we get in the room," Daly said. "I think
there's a lot of uncertainty as to what the position of the union
will be and whether they have an interest in doing a deal."

The NHL invited the players' association back to the table last
week and a meeting was set up shortly after. The league has taken
more of an interest in restarting talks sooner rather than later
because it would like to have a deal in place to hold the June
draft on time and get its relaunch plan under way.

Players wanted to take more of a break. They have less of an
incentive to get back to the table now because they are not due to
be paid again until next season.

No proposals are expected to be exchanged Friday. All previous
offers are off the table, including the league's decision to drop
its demand for cost certainty and the union's willingness to accept
a salary cap in return.

"When we're just coming off the cancellation of the season, it
would not be appropriate to just get in and start firing
proposals," Saskin said before flying home to Toronto. "Certainly
a lot has been learned over the last few years and I think people
understand the hot buttons, they understand the issues that might
lead to progress and might not."

Bettman reiterated Wednesday that the league is committed to
starting next season on time and with a collective bargaining
agreement with the union. But if that doesn't occur, he will
consider using replacement players to ensure there is hockey in the
fall.

"We have lots of options, and obviously that is one of them,"
Bettman said.

The sale of all 30 teams to an investment firm and a sports
advisory company isn't a likely one. The group offered to buy the
league for what Bettman called "an opening bid" of $3.3 billion.
But every team would have to agree, and so far aren't willing to do
so.

"The fact of the matter is I believe the offer would be more
sizable if, in fact, the owners were seriously interested in
pursuing it," Bettman said.

The pursuit is still in trying to find a way to make a deal to
end the lockout. The NHL is already dealing with the stigma of
being the first major sports league to lose a full season to a
labor dispute.

Bettman tried to convey the message that the NHL is still quite
viable, but he put it ahead of only lesser leagues such as the
Arena Football League.

"Before the work stoppage we were a $2.1 billion business.
Other than basketball, football and baseball, among the team
sports, there's nobody close to us," he said.

And that's how the sides want to keep things this week. Both are
concealing details of the meeting that will set the tone for talks
expected to continue into the summer.

"We've had secret meetings, we've had public meetings -- all of
which hasn't worked to date," Saskin said. "Maybe we have to
reassess how we approach it. I think there is a well-deserved
feeling among a lot of fans that they're kind of fed up with
watching negotiations unfold in public. They'd rather hear us
announce that we've made some progress and that we're on our way to
getting a deal than just keep hearing that we haven't made any
progress.

"So maybe it will serve the process better if we can keep
things on a quieter scale."