NHL owners and players met for five hours yesterday, presenting a last-minute sliver of hope that the 2004-05 hockey season could be salvaged. A league representative called the talks "constructive," while the players were also upbeat.
"We engaged in good dialogue today and will continue our discussions in the near future," said NHL Players Association President Trevor Linden, who organized the meeting at Chicago O'Hare International Airport. "We will not make any further comment at this time."
NHL executive vice president and chief legal officer Bill Daly spoke for the owners, thanking Linden for organizing the meeting and calling the session "a good, candid dialogue, and we intend to talk again."
One source said attorneys for both sides would meet again today in Toronto, which would indicate that yesterday's discussion warranted a follow-up.
The NHL also was represented by Harley Hotchkiss, chairman of the NHL board of governors, who characterized the talks as a "constructive exchange of viewpoints," and NHL outside counsel Robert Batterman. In addition to Linden, of the Vancouver Canucks, the union was represented by senior director Ted Saskin and outside counsel John McCambridge.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and players association executive director Bob Goodenow were not present at yesterday's session, which began around 11 a.m. and lasted until 4 p.m.
The league has been shut down since Sept. 15, when the NHL's 30 owners, citing intolerable financial losses, cancelled the season until the players agree to accept a labor agreement that ties overall player payroll to a percentage of league revenues.
Through yesterday, the lockout has resulted in the cancellation of 662 of this season's 1,230 regular season games as well as the All-Star Game. The league has refused to set a deadline for a decision on whether to scuttle the entire season, but NHL insiders believe that a deal must be struck by the end of the month if any games are to be played.
If the season is lost, the NHL would become the first major professional North American sports league to cancel an entire season because of a labor dispute. It would also mark the first time the NHL had not awarded the Stanley Cup since 1919.
Washington Capitals veteran defenseman Brendan Witt said he hoped yesterday's talks might spark meaningful negotiations that will lead to a resolution of the four-month-old lockout.
"It might already be too late, because there's a lot that has to happen," Witt said in a telephone interview from Florida. "Maybe they are trying to work on something. I would love for them to salvage the season, but . . . only if [the deal] is done right, not just thrown together."
More than 350 NHL players are playing in professional leagues in Europe this winter, pending a resolution of the labor dispute.
Twenty teams, including the Capitals, lost money in 2003-04, and NHL owners collectively lost $224 million, according to the league. Two franchises, in Ottawa and Buffalo, filed for bankruptcy in the past three years. The league blames escalating player salaries, which have grown more than threefold over the past decade, and is seeking an agreement that links player salary growth to revenue, a model already adopted successfully by the NFL and NBA.
The union, which has about 700 members, has said it is opposed to a salary cap and favors a continuation of the current system, under which players earn as much as owners are willing to pay them. The union believes the NHL finances are not as dire as the owners claim.
Yesterday's session marked the first talks since Dec. 14, when league owners rejected a union proposal that included a 24 percent salary rollback because it did not link league-wide player payrolls to a percentage of NHL revenue. The owners contend that players received 76 percent of league revenues, and they want to reduce that amount closer to 50 percent.