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NHL, Union Have a Cordial Meeting, but Still No Season

By Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 20, 2005; Page E01

The NHL's last-ditch attempt to rescue its canceled hockey season ended unsuccessfully yesterday after league and players' union negotiators emerged from a six-hour meeting in New York and said they still didn't have a labor contract.

"We talked through the parties' respective positions on the numerous elements that would be involved in designing a new salary cap-based system," NHL chief legal officer Bill Daly said in a statement released by the league last night. "The talks were cordial and informative, but revealed that there remain significant differences that need to be discussed and resolved by the parties. No new proposals were made by either side."

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Daly said no new meetings were scheduled.

On Thursday, the NHL invited the NHL Players Association to New York for a meeting that began around 9 a.m. yesterday morning at an undisclosed location in Manhattan, according to the NHL. The league was joined by hockey greats Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, who are now owners or part owners of the Phoenix Coyotes and Pittsburgh Penguins, respectively.

Gretzky and Lemieux were joined on the owners' side by Daly and outside counsel Bob Batterman.

The union was represented by NHLPA Senior Director Ted Saskin, Director of Business Relations Mike Gartner, union President Trevor Linden, Vice President Vincent Damphousse and outside counsel John McCambridge.

One owner who asked not to be identified because of a leaguewide gag order yesterday said that owners had hoped that Gretzky and Lemieux, who are player icons, would be viewed as "honest brokers" by the union and would help expedite the talks.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman officially canceled the 2004-05 season Wednesday, the culmination of an owner lockout that began Sept. 15 after the players refused to enter into a new collective bargaining agreement that would have set strict limits on teams' total payrolls, similar to the salary caps in the NBA and NFL.

Owners have said the league needs a new economic model that controls player salaries because teams are losing too much money. Players adamantly opposed any system that prevents them from earning top dollar, but they made a major concession this past week at a meeting with owners in Niagara Falls, N.Y., by saying they would accept a salary cap set around $49 million per team.

The league wants a $42.5 million salary cap, and the two sides have been unable to close the gap. But the owners also have compromised, abandoning their insistence that overall salaries and benefits for the league's 700 players not exceed a certain percentage of leaguewide revenues.

The league says about 76 cents out of every dollar of revenue goes toward player salaries, which is far higher than in the other major sports leagues. The union disputes the league numbers.

The NHL is the first major professional sports league to cancel an entire season over a labor dispute and now faces an uncertain future. The league has no lucrative television contract and has alienated many of its fans and sponsors, and owners have said they have lost $500 million over the past two years. Following Wednesday's cancellation, elements among both ownership and the union encouraged negotiators to make another attempt at reaching a deal.

Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Bob Goodenow did not attend yesterday's meetings.

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