Players pessimistic if new talks aren't productive

In a last-ditch effort to jump-start moribund labor negotiations, the National Hockey League Players' Association has invited league officials to meet Wednesday in Chicago without the top two power brokers in the dispute.

At the behest of NHLPA president and Vancouver Canucks center Trevor Linden, three representatives from each side in the four-month dispute will meet, but those discussions will take place without NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow or NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in attendance.

The players' association, locked out by owners since Sept. 15, insisted in a statement it will not be presenting a new proposal to the league nor is it prepared to accept a salary cap, the crucial element separating the two sides. But the meeting remains a flicker of light in an otherwise darkened NHL landscape.

"We think it is appropriate and hopefully useful to engage in these discussions at this time," NHLPA senior director Ted Saskin said in a statement. "We are not meeting to present a new proposal and remain committed to reaching a fair deal that does not include a salary cap."

The NHL's executive vice president and chief legal officer, Bill Daly, told ESPN.com on Monday night he hopes Wednesday's meeting is the first step toward "hopefully a very condensed and short process that will lead to an agreement."

"I really have no idea what's going to come out of it but I felt it was an appropriate step to take and that's why I wanted to extend the invitation to Harley (Hotchkiss, chairman of the NHL's board of governors) and Bill. If nothing else there will be some face-to-face dialogue," Linden told the Canadian Press.

The two sides have not met since mid-December. On Dec. 9 the players offered a comprehensive proposal that included a 24 percent rollback on all existing salaries and a major revamping of the salary arbitration and entry-level salary structure. The owners countered on Dec. 14 with a salary cap range of $34.6 million to $38.6 million and a re-tooling of the 24 percent salary rollback. Both sides rejected each other's proposal and it appeared until Monday that the season might drift into oblivion without any further contact between them.

It's hoped the absence of Goodenow and Bettman "will create a spark with different guys in the room, which I think is a good idea," one team player representative told ESPN.com on Monday.

"Obviously the other way wasn't working," he said.

There has been the strong perception throughout the dispute that the personalities of both leaders have kept the two sides apart, that this has been about Bettman and Goodenow as much as the issues. Wednesday, that theory will be put to the test.

In the absence of the two leaders, Linden will in theory be able to discuss the owners' position frankly with Hotchkiss, who is also part-owner of the Calgary Flames.

Hotchkiss will be joined by Daly and outside legal counsel Bob Batterman while Linden will be joined on the union's side by Saskin and outside legal counsel John McCambridge.

Daly cautioned against reading too much into the dynamic of the meeting, pointing out that both Goodenow and Bettman will ultimately be involved if a deal is struck. But he acknowledged a more informal setting might be the catalyst to discussing critical issues.

Because the stalemate revolves around one mighty philosophical difference of opinion -- the players' refusal to accept a salary cap or any kind of cost certainty and the league's refusal to budge from that primary demand -- it's hoped the nuts and bolts of a potential deal can be more freely discussed. Specifically, if the players are willing to accept some form of cost certainty in the form of a salary cap, what kinds of concessions would owners be willing to make?

Would the league, for instance, agree to a form of revenue sharing of the players' choosing? Would the league agree to a graduated form of cost certainty whereby if revenues grow from their current $2.1 billion that players are guaranteed an increased percentage up from the league's starting point of 54 percent? Would the league ease back on its demands for revamped player arbitration rights and entry-level salaries?

Once the primary issue of cost certainty is resolved, "pretty much everything is negotiable," Daly said.

On the opposite side of the equation, Wednesday's meeting would presumably allow the union to gauge what kind of giveaways they would have to offer in order for the owners to move off of cost certainty. For instance, would the complete removal of salary arbitration; a further, significant reduction of entry-level salaries, which last year were set at $1.2 million; and the removal of all performance bonuses and signing bonuses be enough to sway ownership?

Although the union's bargaining committee remains determined to avoid a salary cap, there are players who fear losing the entire 2004-05 season and at least a portion of next season. Those players feel their best chance to make a deal is now and want the bargaining team to explore those options vigorously, the team representative said.

In the absence of a formal "drop-dead" date for the season, the player rep said the feeling among players is that Friday of this week is a seminal moment. If there isn't significant progress made by then, he said he and many of his colleagues believe the season will be lost.

But, he added, if these talks yield some give and take on both sides, he has been told the league has a 36-game schedule in place that would see play begin during the first week of February.

Daly acknowledged this week is crucial to saving the season.

"I would agree we're in a very, very crucial time period. We're talking about days, not weeks," Daly said.

He confirmed the league has been examining potential schedule scenarios since the lockout began, although he wouldn't say what the minimum number of games the owners would consider for holding a season.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.