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NHL, union back together

Posted: January 6, 2013 - 1:16am

NEW YORK — A federal mediator has finally been able to get the NHL and the players’ association back together Saturday for their first face-to-face meeting since talks broke down two days earlier.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly went to union headquarters for what a players’ association spokesman called a “small group meeting” with the sides and mediator Scot Beckenbaugh.

Beckenbaugh had already held separate meetings with the union and league Saturday before bringing them together.

Beckenbaugh spent more than 12 hours Friday walking back and forth between the Manhattan headquarters of each side — beginning at 10 a.m. EST and wrapping things up shortly before 11 p.m.

While Beckenbaugh never got the league and the union in the same room then, enough was accomplished to convince the sides to keep going.

“I’m looking forward to continuing the process,” Daly wrote to The Associated Press in an email late Friday night.

Beckenbaugh began Saturday by holding a meeting with the union and then walked over to talk to NHL officials. He then made the trek back to the players’ association for the group meeting shortly before 1 p.m.

With the hockey season hanging in the balance, Saturday could prove to be a pivotal day on all fronts. The sides have less than a week to reach a new collective bargaining agreement to save what would likely be a 48-game hockey season.

Beckenbaugh also took part in talks during the 2004-05 lockout, which forced the cancellation of the whole season. The players’ association will conclude a two-day vote among its members at 6 p.m. Saturday that will determine whether the union’s executive board will again have the authority to declare a disclaimer of interest.

If the vote passes, as expected, the disclaimer can be issued, and the union would dissolve and become a trade association. That could send this fight to the courts and put the season in jeopardy. The disclaimer would allow players to file individual antitrust suits against the NHL.

Earlier this week, a self-imposed deadline expired on the first authorization that union members gave the board. The initial threat seemed to work in getting the NHL back to the bargaining table, but talks broke down Wednesday night after the deadline passed without action taken by the union.

Now the players want to regain the leverage the potential disclaimer gives them.

Bettman set a Jan. 11 deadline for a deal so the season can begin eight days later. A 48-game season is the minimum Bettman said the league would play.

All games through Jan. 14, along with the All-Star game, have been canceled, claiming more than 50 percent of the original schedule. Trust has become a major impediment in the talks that appear to have been rescued to some extent by Beckenbaugh.

On Thursday morning, the sides solved a problem that arose regarding the reporting by clubs of hockey-related revenue, and how both sides sign off on the figures at the end of the fiscal year. The union felt the language had been changed without proper notification. That dispute was ended in about an hour, but clearly discord was present in the talks.

Another small meeting, the second of the day without union head Donald Fehr, addressed the pension plan. That one lasted just under two hours and marked the last time the sides met this week.

The players’ association held a late Thursday afternoon conference call to initiate its second vote on the disclaimer of interest.

A sense of progress might be why the union didn’t declare the disclaimer Wednesday, but any optimism created after the deadline passed has taken several hits since.

The NHLPA filed a motion in federal court in New York seeking to dismiss the league’s suit to have the lockout declared legal. The NHL sued the union in mid-December, figuring the players were about to submit their own complaint against the league.

But the union argued that the NHL is using this suit “to force the players to remain in a union. Not only is it virtually unheard of for an employer to insist on the unionization of its employees, it is also directly contradicted by the rights guaranteed to employees under ... the National Labor Relations Act.”

The court scheduled a status conference for the sides on Monday. The sides have traded four proposals in the past week — two by each side — but none has gained enough traction. Getting an agreement on a pension plan would likely go a long way toward a deal that would put hockey back on the ice.

Fehr believed a plan for a players-funded pension was established before talks blew up in early December. That apparently wasn’t the case, or the NHL changed its offer regarding the pension in exchange for agreeing to other things the union wanted.

The salary-cap number for the second year of the deal — the 2013-14 season — hasn’t been agreed to, and is another major point of contention. The league is pushing for a $60 million cap, while the union wants it to be $65 million with a floor of $44 million.

In return for the higher cap, players would be willing to forgo a cap on escrow.

Other issues still needing resolution include the maximum length of player contracts, the yearly variance in salary of those individual deals, and how long the CBA should be in effect. Both sides seem content on it lasting for 10 years, but they have different opinions on whether an opt-out should be allowed to be exercised after seven years or eight. Last season, the NHL posted record revenues of $3.3 billion. The sides seem likely to agree on a 50-50 split of the pot in any new deal.

The NHL is the only North American professional sports league to cancel a season because of a labor dispute, losing the 2004-05 campaign to a lockout. A 48-game season was played in 1995 after a lockout stretched into January.

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