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Any progress is well-disguised in NHL talks

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If there is progress, it’s well-disguised after four straight days of intense negotiations between the NHL and the NHL Players Association in New York.

The sides have been considering and debating many of the core issues this week, meetings that followed a long day of one-on-one discussion last weekend between NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly and NHLPA special counsel Steve Fehr.

The reality of the meetings has caused optimism, but that’s mostly come from outsiders who are not face-to-face, dealing with the gap in proposals.

"I’m concerned a bit (about the gap) but at least they’re talking," Winnipeg Jets centre Bryan Little said Friday. "They could call it quits and not talk again for a while but they’re hammering it out trying to figure something out, trying to find some way to close the gap."

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the league is ready and willing to continue meeting through the weekend.

NHLPA executive director Don Fehr told reporters late Friday that the sides could well get together again today.

But agreement on anything so far has been elusive. While there seems to be consensus that a new CBA for the NHL will feature a 50-50 split in revenue at some juncture, nothing seems to be put to bed.

In fact, one surprising element surfaced early Friday when, via Fehr’s memo to the players on Thursday night, it was revealed that a pension plan discussion took up some of Thursday’s time.

Player pensions were not thought to be a major issue or sticking point in these negotiations, so there’s another wrinkle added to a list that so far has no apparent solutions.

The league has been in lockout since Sept. 15, the expiry of the collective barganing agreement signed in 2005.

In that agreement, the players had gradually increased their share of hockey-related revenue to 57 per cent.

The NHL says it needs a reset to 50 per cent — which will drive the payroll range lower — in order to make its business more viable for all 30 franchises, the majority of which are not profitable.

As many as a half-dozen NHL clubs are bleeding large amounts of money, which brought the sides to lengthy consideration of revenue-sharing proposals this week.

The league is said to have proposed going to $220 million in that pool; the players have requested it go as high as $260 million, with a more targeted channelling of cash to the struggling teams.

TSN and ESPN.com were reporting Friday that the league laid out specifics of its "make-whole" proposal this week, the mechanism by which players with existing contracts would realize those full amounts, despite the fact the players’ overall share of revenues will go from 57 to 50 per cent, or a cut of about 12 per cent.

The NHL was said to be ready to guarantee that $211 million would be returned to players ($149 milion in Year 1 and $62 million in Year 2), all by Year 3 of a deal, when the league believes future growth will render the HRR reset neutral.

Fehr said Friday night the NHL’s proposal in that area was not yet good enough.

And then there are the contracting issues. The NHL wants a five-year limit, arbitration rights to come a year later, same for unrestricted free agency, all requests the players do not currently accept.

Fehr, in his memo, suggested to the players that already they were offering up as concessions of more than $1 billion worth of salaries in the next five years, and yet the league wanted more, specifically in the contracting-issues area.

All of this is against a backdrop that the details the league is proposing this week are not viewed favourably by several owners who remain of the opinion that they’d rather not play if this is the deal, that too much has been put on the table for the NHLPA.

Bettman, of course, is not talking in those terms when he’s talking at all these days, but he undoubtedly remains mindful of those in his camp to which he’ll have to sell any deal.

Already, regular training camps, exhibition games, all of October’s and November’s games plus the Jan. 1 Winter Classic outdoor game have been canceled.

The unspoken hope has been for new talks to lead to a season beginning possibly in early December, but considering the hurdles still to go, the time for that is getting quite short.


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