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NHL, Union Resume Talks In Hopes To Save Season

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NEW YORK (AP) - After a long night of talks, the NHL and the union are returning to negotiations — just later than expected.

The sides were supposed to meet at the league office Thursday at 10 a.m. EST. That, however, did not happen. The Players Association said it was updating its members on negotiations.

Players and union staff began arriving at NHL headquarters a little before a 1 p.m., although union head Donald Fehr was not part of the group.

With the lockout in its 110th day, both sides understand the urgency to save a shortened season. They have moved closer to one another while swapping proposals, but key issues remain — pensions and salary cap, among them.

Commissioner Gary Bettman has said that the league told the union a deal needs to be in place by next week so a 48-game season can begin Jan. 19. All games through Jan. 14 along with the All-Star game have been canceled, claiming more than 50 percent of the original schedule.

The sides met in small groups throughout the day Wednesday. They then held a full bargaining session with a federal mediator at night that lasted nearly five hours and didn’t wrap up until about 1 a.m. Thursday.

The biggest detail to emerge from those talks was that Fehr is still the executive director of the players’ association, which passed on its first chance to declare a disclaimer that would dissolve the union and turn it into a trade association.

Last month, players voted overwhelmingly to give its executive board the right to declare the disclaimer, but that permission expired at midnight Wednesday. The disclaimer would allow individual players to file antitrust lawsuits against the NHL. Fehr wouldn’t address the issue, calling it an “internal matter.”

“The word disclaimer has yet to be uttered to us by the players’ association,” Bettman said. “It’s not that it gets filed anywhere with a court or the NLRB. When you disclaim interest as a union, you notify the other side. We have not been notified and it’s never been discussed, so there has been no disclaimer.”

The thought was that the union wouldn’t take action Wednesday if it saw progress was being made. Neither side would characterize the talks or address what, if any, movement toward common ground was reached.

“There’s been some progress but we’re still apart on a number of issues,” Bettman said. “As long as the process continues I am hopeful.”

A deal can’t be done without a resolution on pensions. Bettman called the pension plan a “very complicated issue.” A small group meeting on the pension issue was held Wednesday morning before the players’ association presented its offer.

“The number of variables and the number of issues that have to be addressed by people who carry the title actuary or pension lawyer are pretty numerous and it’s pretty easy to get off track. That is something we understand is important to the players.”

The union’s proposal Wednesday makes four offers between the sides since the NHL restarted negotiations Thursday with a proposal. The league presented the players with a counteroffer Tuesday night in response to one the union made Monday.

Fehr believed an agreement on a players-funded pension had been reached before talks blew up in early December. That apparently wasn’t the case, or the NHL has changed its offer regarding the pension in exchange for agreeing to other things the union wanted.

The salary-cap number for the second year of the deal — the 2013-14 season — hasn’t been established, and it is another point of contention. The league is pushing for a $60 million cap, while the union wants it to be $65 million.

In return for the higher cap number players would be willing to forgo a cap on escrow.

“We talk about lots of things and we even had some philosophical discussions about why particular issues were important to each of us,” Bettman said. “That is part of the process.”

The NHL proposed in its first offer Thursday that pension contributions come out of the players’ share of revenues, and $50 million of the league’s make-whole payment of $300 million will be allocated and set aside to fund potential underfunding liabilities of the plan at the end of the collective bargaining agreement.

Last month, the NHL agreed to raise its make-whole offer of deferred payments from $211 million to $300 million as part of a proposed package that required the union to agree on three nonnegotiable points. Instead, the union accepted the raise in funds, but then made counterproposals on the issues the league stated had no wiggle room.

“As you might expect, the differences between us relate to the core economic issues which don’t involve the share,” Fehr said of hockey-related revenue, which likely will be split 50-50.

The NHL is the only North American professional sports league to cancel a season because of a labor dispute, losing the 2004-05 campaign to a lockout. A 48-game season was played in 1995 after a lockout stretched into January.

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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