Labor talks shift to general league discussion

NEW YORK -- Three negotiating sessions in six weeks failed
to bring the NHL and the players association any closer to labor

Now, less than a month remains before a season-threatening
lockout is expected to be imposed.

"We're all aware of the timeline," NHLPA senior director Ted
Saskin said Tuesday after a five-hour meeting in New Jersey. "At
our end, we're working hard toward doing what we can to get to a
fair agreement for both sides, and we're going to continue in that

The NHLPA formally rejected six proposed concepts put forth by
the league that were discussed in two previous meetings. Talks then
shifted to a general discussion of league, and specific team
economics and operations.

"Today can be more fairly characterized as a side step in the
process," Saskin said. "We'll have further discussions so that
hopefully we can find areas where we are in agreement and build
from there."

The next talks will take place over two days next week in
Ottawa, then resume Aug. 30 and Sept. 1 in Montreal, the site of
World Cup of Hockey games on those nights.

The two-week tournament, a joint venture between the NHL and the
NHLPA, concludes Sept. 14. The current contract between the league
and its players expires the next day.

"We told the players association that we would make ourselves
available every day between now and the end of the collective
bargaining agreement to try to get this resolved," said Bill Daly,
the NHL's chief legal officer.

"To us, there's nothing more important. ... While, obviously,
we both want the World Cup to be successful, it should be secondary
to the overriding objective which is to spend as much time as is
necessary to try to talk this through and get a resolution."

Saskin also expressed a willingness to have regular meetings
before the deadline. But as each fruitless session wraps up, a
hockey shutdown becomes more likely.

"I would not characterize today's meeting as having made any
progress in any direction," he said.

Neither the NHL's six proposed concepts nor the NHLPA's
framework that was put forth in a meeting last Oct. 1 were
discussed Tuesday. Instead of furthering discussions in those
areas, known to be of little interest to the opposing side, the
talks took a new course.

"They said they wanted to get a better understanding of our
views with respect to how the system impacts the way our teams
operate," Daly said.

So much of the dispute boils down to philosophical differences.
The NHLPA contends that the six concepts floated by the NHL contain
a salary cap, an idea the union says it will never accept.

Daly countered that only one proposal is based on a salary-cap
structure, and feels the sides have differing views of what
constitutes a salary cap.

"My view is a maximum team payroll that applies to all the
teams," he said. "Apparently they have changed that traditional
definition of a salary cap. ... I think anything that's not the
status quo, they believe is a salary cap."

Saskin was quick to refute that. He doesn't think there is a
difference in opinion of what a salary cap is. The NHLPA is not
against changing the current economic system, it just doesn't want
to do it the way the league has so far suggested.

"I think they understand that we want there to be a marketplace
where owners will set players' values based on the individual
negotiations," Saskin said. "We understand that they want to tie
player costs to a negotiated limit of what they're prepared to
negotiate as league revenues."

Of the four major North American sports, only baseball has a
luxury tax system. The NFL and NBA have salary caps.

"The six proposals that we've made, we still firmly believe
that any is a way to resolve our issues," Daly said.

The NHLPA is not likely to provide a new proposal next week in
Ottawa and Saskin wouldn't divulge a timeline for when a new offer
might cross the table. The current deal ended a lockout nine years
ago, and the agreement has been extended twice.

That previous dispute lasted 103 days and cut the 1994-95 season
nearly in half. Owners have been preparing for another potential
lockout for the last several years, and have built up a $300
million war chest.