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NHL, Union Meet Again, but They're No Closer to Their Goal

By Thomas Heath and Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 21, 2005; Page D02

The NHL and its players' union emerged from a 4 1/2-hour meeting yesterday in Toronto without significant progress toward a labor agreement that would save the 2004-2005 season, dashing hopes -- at least for now -- for a last-minute end to the 127-day stalemate.

"We had two good days of communication," NHL chief legal officer Bill Daly said in a statement released last night. "But we continue to have strong philosophical differences. The lines of communication are open, and we're going to continue to work on it."

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Yesterday's meeting was the second between the representatives of the owners and players in as many days. The sides met at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on Wednesday, their first meeting in more than a month.

The NHL was represented yesterday by Daly and outside counsel Robert Batterman. The NHLPA was represented by senior director Ted Saskin, President Trevor Linden of the Vancouver Canucks, and outside counsel John McCambridge.

"We remain divided philosophically and have scheduled no further talks," Linden said in a statement.

"We clearly have some strong differences of opinion that we've had for some time," Saskin told the Associated Press. "We continue to look for ways to bridge the gaps. We have not been successful in doing so. . . . But the lines of communication continue to be open."

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Bob Goodenow, the central figures in the dispute, did not attend either session.

NHL insiders have said that if owners and the players union do not reach some agreement before the end of January, the entire season probably will be lost. If play is not resumed, the NHL will become the first major sport in North America to lose an entire season because of labor issues. It would also be the first time the NHL has not awarded the Stanley Cup since 1919, when the Spanish Flu pandemic killed millions worldwide.

The owners locked out the players Sept. 15 after the union failed to agree to a drastic restructuring of the league's finances.

Twenty of the NHL's 30 teams, including the Washington 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 salaries, which have grown more than threefold over the past decade, and is seeking agreement with the players' union on a system that would link salary growth to leaguewide revenue, a model already adopted successfully by the NFL and NBA.

The union disputes the league numbers, arguing that the owners earn far more from hockey operations than they admit.

NHL salaries have grown from an average of $463,200 a decade ago to $1.8 million per player last season. That's the highest percentage among the four major professional sports leagues. Three quarters of every dollar of NHL revenue is consumed by players' salaries, according to the league.

The union, which has about 700 members, is adamantly 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 players say a salary cap eliminates the free market and prevents them from earning top dollar.

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