A second straight day with a federal mediator didn't do anything to bring the sides closer to a settlement on Thursday as the lockout dragged on with dwindling hope that the hockey season will be saved.
NHLPA special counsel Steve Fehr talked face to face with lead league counsel Bob Batterman, which was a positive development because the sides were kept separate on Wednesday and met only with the mediator. Fehr is expected to talk on Friday with NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, either in person or by telephone, to discuss how to proceed in their search for a new collective bargaining agreement.
"I'm not sure what the next steps will be," Daly told The Associated Press in an email. "I do expect the mediators to stay involved in terms of monitoring our ongoing negotiations, but at this point there are no further sessions planned. It doesn't appear there was movement by either side on any of the main issues over the last two days."
Daly and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, along with union executive director Donald Fehr didn't participate in Thursday's talks.
The dispute has gotten so big that President Barack Obama was asked about the stalemate during an interview Thursday with WCCO-TV in Minneapolis.
"My message to owners and to players is, 'You guys make a lot of money and you make a lot of money on the backs of fans, so do right by your fans. You can figure out how to spread out a bunch of revenue that you're bringing in, but do right by the people who support you,'" Obama said. "And I shouldn't have to be involved in a dispute between really wealthy players and even wealthier owners. They should be able to settle this themselves. And remember who it is that's putting all that money in their pockets."
While the president isn't jumping into the fray, the mediators aren't likely to jump out yet.
"I expect the mediators will continue to be involved," Steve Fehr wrote in an email to the AP. "(I) do not want to characterize the discussion."
Mediators talked to each group separately Wednesday in suburban New Jersey and carried messages back and forth.
The league and union hadn't met since talks fell apart a week ago on the third straight day of negotiations in New York. Mediators rejoined the conversation Wednesday following two failed days last month, but still couldn't achieve a breakthrough.
The latest round of talks was supposed to be held away from reporters and cameras, but the meeting location was quickly revealed Wednesday. Both sides briefly made public statements then in frustrated tones.
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When the NHL agreed last week to increase its make-whole offer of deferred payments from $211 million to $300 million, it was part of a proposed package that required the union to agree on three nonnegotiable points. Instead, the players' association accepted the raise in funds, but then made counterproposals on the issues the league stated had no wiggle room.
Bettman then said that the offer was being pulled from the table. Mediators, however, asked the union Wednesday if that proposal was back in play, would the players take it or leave it?
"It wasn't much of a decision," said Brendan Morrison, one of 13 players to attend Wednesday's talks. "I thought the gap would be closed much quicker, but it hasn't come to fruition yet, so we have to keep working."
The offer wasn't actually resubmitted by the NHL. Neither side made proposals Wednesday or Thursday.
All games through Dec. 30 have been canceled, 43 percent of the season, along with the New Year's Day Winter Classic and the All-Star game.
After talks ended last Thursday, Donald Fehr began the first of his two news conferences that day by proclaiming he believed the sides had agreements on such issues as actual dollars and a players-funded pension plan. He returned moments later to reveal the NHL rejected everything offered.
The 2004-05 season was lost completely, resulting in the players' association accepting a deal that included a salary cap for the first time. While no such major philosophical disputes exist in these negotiations, the sides still aren't ready to come to an agreement.
A 48-game season was played in 1995 after a lockout stretched into January. Bettman said he wouldn't have a shorter season than that.
The NHL wants to limit personal player contracts to five years, seven for a club to re-sign its own player and has elevated the issue to the highest level of importance. The union countered with an offer of an eight-year maximum length with the variable in salary being no greater than a 25 percent difference between the highest-paid year of the deal and the lowest.
The other sticking points the NHL demanded of the players are a 10-year term on the new agreement, with a mutual opt-out option after eight years, and no compliance buyouts or caps on escrow in the transition phase to the new structure. The union presented an offer of an eight-year deal with a reopener after six.
Press; By IRA PODELL]
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