League, union both see a plus side

TORONTO -- Reducing the NHL schedule by 10 games is among topics being discussed by the NHL and its players association in attempting to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement.

"Shortening the season is what we've said all along is what we're prepared to discuss along with any number of other issues," NHL vice president Bill Daly said Wednesday. "To say we've had any serious negotiations or any tentative agreement on it would be an overstatement. But certainly it's something that will probably come up in the course of these negotiations."

Daly's comments come as the NHL is preparing to meet with NHLPA officials in Toronto on Thursday in an effort to spur stalled negotiations. The meeting will be the first formal negotiation session since the sides last talked, in Toronto on Oct. 1.

"It's a continuation of a process we started last year," union
senior director Ted Saskin told The Associated Press on Wednesday

Daly has already had "casual discussions" with players association representatives regarding the schedule.

The NHL has operated with an 82-game regular season since 1995-96. A 72-game schedule would be the shortest since teams last played 70 games in 1966-67, the final year before the NHL expanded from six to 12 teams.

The league's current collective bargaining agreement expires Sept. 15, and negotiations are expected to be stormy. The potential is there for a lockout next season.

Daly, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and union head Bob Goodenow together attended Wednesday's playoff game in Toronto between the Maple Leafs and Philadelphia Flyers.

Both sides see potential benefits to a shortened season, Daly said. The union believes fewer games would lead to less fatigue among players and provide for a better product, he said.

The benefit to the NHL would be allowing more flexibility in scheduling games on more attractive nights, such as weekends, which generally attract more fans. The Buffalo Sabres, for example, sold out 13 games last season, nine of which came on either a weekend night or holiday.

Daly said Thursday's talks provide an opportunity to re-establish ties between the sides and lay the groundwork for future negotiations.

"It's good to restart the dialogue and get talking about the issues and get creative in trying to resolve them," Daly said. "Obviously, we need to pick up the pace of the meetings to kind of move forward."

The talks could last through Friday, but Daly expects them to go for only one day.

The main issue of contention is salaries.

"It takes two sides to negotiate, and to date we haven't seen the NHL interested in negotiating with us," Saskin said. "Hopefully, they'll come ready to negotiate."

Citing about $273 million in losses during the 2002-03 season, owners are seeking what they refer to as "cost certainty" to rein in player salaries.

The players have questioned how the league accounts for its revenues, and they refer to the owners' proposal as a "salary cap," something they call unacceptable.