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Sides still at odds in NHL labor talks

The NHL’s top two executives — Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly — met with the NHLPA’s main negotiators — executive director Donald Fehr and special counsel Steve Fehr — for nearly an hour Wednesday morning to assess where the sides were on Day 25 of the NHL lockout, but there was no concrete discussions on the troublesome core economic issues preventing a deal.

A four-hour session that stretched into evening centered on player health and safety issues along with other miscellaneous legal topics. The health issues involved seeking multiple medical opinions on injuries, and who should make determinations when a player is healthy enough to return to action after being hurt.

“We have some disagreements in those areas,” Daly said. “When you get to this point of the discussions on some of those areas, that is to be expected so we’re kind of refining some of the things we continue to have disagreements on.

“We had no discussion of the major economic issues or system issues, so that continues to be a disappointment from our perspective.”

The sides will meet again Thursday — which should have been NHL opening day — but there are still no plans to delve into how the sides will split up hockey-related revenue that was in excess of $3 billion last season.

Steve Fehr took a more optimistic view of what was discussed Wednesday, but lamented that the discussions were taking place instead of action on the ice.

“You often don’t know whether you’re making progress until you look back on it,” he said. “We were just sort of discussing the overall status of the bargaining and where the parties are.”

The NHL is eager to get a new proposal from the union on the main economic issues, but the players contend that they have moved closer to the league’s demands in their previous offers while the NHL has only sought to take more away from the union in each proposal it has made.

“I think we’re making progress in a number of the areas that were discussed today,” Steve Fehr said. “They were good discussions. It’s a shame that they are going on in the midst of a lockout when we could be doing it while we’re playing or we could’ve been doing it a month ago or two months ago.

“I wouldn’t say (talks) are dead in the water. The sides are in constant communication. I think we have a pretty good sense of where each other is.”

However, Donald Fehr has floated the idea that the longer the lockout goes on, the players might seek to make an offer that doesn’t include a salary cap — the very issue that led to the cancellation of the 2004-05 season. The collective bargaining agreement that finally ended that lockout seven years ago expired last month.

“None of those comments were a surprise to me,” Daly said. “If that is the direction they choose to go in, that’s up to them. I don’t make the decisions for them. They’ve suggested they want to get the players back on the ice soon. I can pretty much assure you if they make that proposal, it won’t get the players back on the ice soon.”

If discussions can get jump-started, the sides haven’t ruled out meeting again on Friday. Two weeks of the regular season have already been wiped out — at least temporarily — and if a deal isn’t struck soon, more games could soon be lost.

For now, Daly and the NHL just want to hear something new from the union.

“We’re trying to think of ideas to move the process forward,” he said. “Our message to the players’ association was we’re encouraging them to make a proposal. We hear, we understand that they have been working on some concepts, some ideas. We’ve suggested to them to just make the proposal.

“Any movement is better than no movement at all. If we move sideways, hopefully we moves it forward. But even if we move backward, it might be better than where we are now.”

These were the first negotiations since the sides held an unannounced meeting in Toronto on Friday to discuss where they were and how to move the process forward.

Last week, the NHL canceled the first two weeks of the regular season, wiping out 82 games from Thursday through Oct. 24.

Daly estimated the NHL lost $100 million from the cancellation of the entire preseason and another $140 million to $150 million with the regular-season losses.

“It’s unfortunate for both of us,” he said. “It’s a significant amount of money that the players share in on a significant basis. Whatever that percentage ends up being, it’s a significant basis.

“Even more disappointing from should be from our collective perspective is we felt like over the last seven years we’ve built up a lot of momentum in the business, we’ve had a lot of growth, and who knows what a work stoppage from this will do to our momentum.”

One victory was achieved by the NHL on Wednesday when the Alberta Labor Relations Board ruled that the lockout of players from the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames can continue.

The board said declaring the lockout illegal in the province wouldn’t help the league and its players reach a settlement. The players had argued that the Oilers and Flames are Alberta businesses and as such, must abide by provincial labor rules.

“We’re disappointed, obviously,” Steve Fehr said. “We thought we had a strong case. It’s a bit of an odd decision in that the labor board found that its powers were permissive instead of mandatory.

“They didn’t say we were necessarily wrong on the law, they said they just chose not to get involved. We think that is unfortunate. We think they should’ve gotten involved. Obviously it’s a win for the league and they get to continue the lockout they want so badly without any interference from the Alberta labor board.”

Daly said the entire case was irrelevant to the bargaining process that will be necessary to reach a deal.

“It was really a distraction to the process,” he said. “It wasn’t good-faith bargaining. It didn’t move the good-faith bargaining process forward.”s

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