More labor negotiations set for late May

TORONTO -- Failing to break major ground on the issue of
salaries in their first formal labor talks since October, the NHL
and the players' union scheduled more negotiations late next month.

"I don't think anybody came into this thinking we were going to
get a deal done today, but we had good discussions," NHL Players'
Association senior director Ted Saskin said Thursday.

"It's a step in the process and ... at the end of the day, I
guess we'll judge how productive these meetings have been."

NHL vice president Bill Daly used the word "progress" in
characterizing the discussions, and referred to Thursday's talks as
"a healthy dialogue."

The two sides' chief negotiators spoke to the media after a
3½-hour meeting at the union's offices in Toronto.

Without providing an exact date, they agreed to meet again in
late May.

Also attending the negotiations were NHL commissioner Gary
Bettman and union chief Bob Goodenow. Bettman and Goodenow did not
speak to reporters.

The discussions were an attempt to spur stalled labor talks to
head off a potential lockout that could disrupt next season after
the current collective bargaining agreement expires Sept. 15.

Any deal will hinge on whether the two sides can agree on the
system in which players salaries are negotiated.

Citing about $273 million in losses during the 2002-03 season,
owners are seeking what they refer to as a "cost certainty"
formula to balance revenues.

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

The players have proposed a system of luxury taxes, revenue
sharing, changes to the entry level salary structure and an overall
reduction in players salaries.

Referring to players salaries as "a threshold issue," Saskin
acknowledged it was going to present a difficult hurdle.

"We know where we disagree," Saskin said, referring to
players' salaries. "And we're going to continue to try to talk and
see if we can find ways to bridge the gaps that currently exist
between our respective positions."

Until there's progress on this issue, Saskin doubted the two
sides would step up the pace of negotiations.

Daly went further in saying that once the players' salary issue
is resolved, he's confident that many of the remaining topics would
fall into place.

Daly said it was important to at least re-establish talks.

"The more we meet, the more we dialogue, the more we try to be
creative, the better off we'll all be," he said.

Salaries dominated discussions, Daly said, leaving the two sides
no time to touch on any other topics up for negotiation. That
included an already discussed proposal to shorten the NHL regular
season by 10 games.

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

Daly said earlier this week that he's had casual discussions
with the union on the matter.

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Wade Belak supported the idea of a
shortened schedule.

"There's too many games," Belak said, following the Leafs
practice on Thursday. "As a fan, it's tough to watch 82 games. I
look at baseball, same thing. I wish there was less games. I think
72 is a good number."

Even if it meant a cut in salary?

"Oh yeah," Belak said. "If it's for less money for less
games, I'm for it."