NHL

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Season's fate in hands of union

Players wield influence entering today's meeting

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NEW YORK -- As the NHL and NHL Players' Association continue to creep perilously close to another lost season, the union now finds itself wielding a fair amount of influence over where things are headed.

Not only is the NHLPA expected to show up for a meeting at the league office this morning with a counter-offer -- a potentially pivotal one with less than two weeks remaining to reach a deal -- it also finds itself still pondering whether to file a "disclaimer of interest" by Wednesday night.

That would likely only happen if things don't go well when the sides gather today a few blocks from Times Square, where thousands of revellers will celebrate the start of 2013 hours later. It will be the first time the league and union have met for a bargaining session since Dec. 6, when talks went off the rails following the NHLPA's most recent proposal.

The league has since shown a willingness to bend on key issues by softening some of its demands in a comprehensive proposal delivered on Thursday night. The NHLPA also came away from informational sessions Saturday and Sunday, where aspects of the 288-page document were clarified, feeling like there could be some room for even more movement.

Among the biggest issues for the union is a proposed salary cap of $60 million in 2013-14, which would severely limit the amount of money available for free agents this summer. It is also believed not to be in favour of having the proposed amnesty buyouts counted against the players share of revenue, although not on an individual team's salary cap.

After the sides went three weeks between proposals, there is a sense of urgency as they return to the bargaining table.

The league's latest offer is designed to preserve a 48-game season that would see the playoffs end before July. For that to happen, commissioner Gary Bettman has told the union that an agreement would need to be reached by Jan. 11 so the puck could be dropped Jan. 19.

The NHL's proposal calls for a six-year term limit on free-agent deals -- up from five previously -- and will allow teams to re-sign their own players for up to seven years. It also includes a provision that salary can vary by 10 per cent from year to year during the course of a deal.

In the NHLPA's Dec. 6 offer, it proposed an eight-year term limit on contracts with a 25 per cent variance.

Another area where there is ground to make up is the length of the agreement itself. The NHL is asking for a 10-year CBA that includes a mutual option to terminate after eight seasons. The NHLPA has favoured a shorter deal, most recently suggesting an eight-year contract that could be terminated after six years.

Even still, the NHLPA has maintained that the sides aren't very far apart.

If the key negotiators from each side aren't able to come up with a new CBA soon, the next battle between them is likely to be waged in court. The NHLPA's executive board has until Wednesday to file a "disclaimer of interest" that would see the union dissolved and give players the chance to file anti-trust lawsuits against the league.

At this late stage, it would almost certainly put the season in jeopardy.

There is also a pending class-action lawsuit from the NHL filed with the U.S. federal court in New York. Earlier this month, the league asked the court to rule on the legality of the lockout and argued that the NHLPA was only using the threat of a "disclaimer of interest" as a bargaining tactic to "extract more favourable terms and conditions of employment."

In the meantime, the damage caused by another lockout continues to worsen. Players missed their sixth paycheque of the 2012-13 season on Sunday and instead of having the league's key stakeholders gather over new year's to celebrate the sport like usual at the Winter Classic, the NHL's hierarchy was headed back to the bargaining table.

But with the lockout hitting its 15th week and another proposal in the offing, everyone knows the stakes are high.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 31, 2012 C2

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