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NHL, Union to Meet Again

Negotiations Back On Three Days After Cancellation of Season

By Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 19, 2005; Page D01

The NHL and the NHL Players Association will meet in New York today, sparking speculation that the two sides will make a last-ditch effort to salvage the 2004-05 season just three days after the NHL declared the season dead.

"The two sides are meeting in New York at the request of the league," NHL spokeswoman Bernadette Mansur said last night.

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Mansur said NHL chief legal officer Bill Daly and NHLPA senior director Ted Saskin and their associates would be meeting at an undisclosed location in New York.

Both sides were heading to New York last night, sources said, and a story posted on the Web site of the Hockey News said they had agreed in principle to a deal that would feature a $45 million salary cap. An NHLPA spokesman told the Associated Press in an e-mail that the report was "absolutely false."

One longtime NHL executive said he was unaware of any imminent deal, and said that for logistical reasons such as the lack of a schedule and the lack of enough players under contract, he did not believe it was feasible to resume the season now. Instead, the official said he believed the negotiations were aimed at next season.

"Too many owners in this league want the season canceled," the executive said. "I think we'll get a deal done, and we may get it done soon. But everything tells me it will be for next season."

That report of a deal and news of the meeting came after two days of frustration and disappointment among fans, players and owners. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman's announcement Wednesday that the season would be canceled was the culmination of an owner-imposed player lockout that began Sept. 15 after the union refused to agree to a new economic system that imposed strict controls on player salaries similar to the ones used by the NBA and the NFL.

In the days before the cancellation announcement, the NHLPA accepted the idea of a salary cap after opposing it vehemently throughout the lockout. In response, the owners dropped their demand that payroll limits be tied to a percentage of revenues.

But as of Wednesday morning, the players would not budge from a salary cap of $49 million while the owners would not move above $42.5 million. That afternoon, Bettman declared a deadlock and cancelled the season. But he left the door open for the union to come back to the bargaining table, strongly hinting during his news conference that if the players reduced their demand to $45 million, he would consider a deal.

That sliver of hope sparked reports that some of the game's biggest names, including Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, were quietly making last-ditch efforts to broker a deal to reverse the cancellation.

New Jersey Devils President Lou Lamoriello, who has taken part in previous negotiations, told the AP last night, "The way everything has transpired, nothing surprises me."

Lamoriello declined to say whether he would be in attendance at today's meeting but did not squash the report of an agreement.

"I think the timing has always been to get an agreement so that we can play," he told the AP. "Right now, it's still get an agreement, and then if we get an agreement, then can we play?

"I think it's a little different than it was before."

A move to revive the season would be a remarkable reversal three days after the NHL become the first major professional sports league to cancel an entire year because of a labor agreement. However, fears that a lost season could do irreparable harm to a league already without a lucrative television deal and with a disgruntled fan base led moderates among both players and owners to press Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Bob Goodenow over the last three days to move toward a compromise.

"Even the executive committee of the NHLPA was split on this, with some people backing Bob to hold out and some backing Ted [Saskin], who wanted to make deal," said one agent who represents several players.

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