League, union have little good to say

Three days of meetings between the NHL and the Players Association failed to bring the sides closer to a new labor
agreement that would prevent a lockout from being imposed in less
than two weeks.

The sides talked for about 20 hours over three days in Montreal
and finished this latest round of discussions Thursday. All that
appeared to be accomplished was the completion of an assessment of
the business and management operations of each of the 30 clubs.

The NHLPA called these discussions that began two weeks earlier
in New Jersey a "side step" in the negotiations. The NHL labeled
it a "charade" and said the players were stalling to force owners
to lock them out once the collective bargaining agreement expires
Sept. 15.

"We continue to be somewhat dubious as to where they're going
with it, but they made assurances to us that it was for the purpose
of furthering the negotiation," said Bill Daly, the NHL's chief
legal officer and executive vice president. "While they didn't
commit to making a proposal, I would suggest we expect one since
they suggested this discussion was for a purpose."

But the NHLPA contends owners will listen only to a proposal
that includes a salary cap, a solution the players refuse to offer
or accept. The players have been reluctant to offer a new deal it
feels has no chance of being received favorably.

"They are still only interested in negotiating a cap system,
which provides us with no reason for optimism and no basis for any
real progress," NHLPA senior director Ted Saskin said.

For now, the sides are negotiating while partners in the World
Cup of Hockey that began this week. The championship is Sept. 14 --
the eve of a potential lockout date -- in Toronto.

Both parties expect to get together again next week. Toronto and
St. Paul, Minn., are likely destinations because World Cup games
are there.

"The players have made it very clear that there is a lot they
are prepared to talk about to reach a fair deal for both sides,"
Saskin said. "The only thing we are not prepared to talk about is
a salary cap."

Nor do the players seem ready to make another proposal. The only
one they've made came when negotiations began last Oct. 1. That
contained a luxury tax, a 5 percent rollback in player salaries,
changes in entry-level salaries, and revenue sharing.

"I continue to be skeptical with respect to what type of
proposal we'll get," Daly said. "We would hope that they would
make a proposal that would meaningfully address the issues that
we've identified."

Several weeks ago, the NHL presented six concepts. The NHLPA
rejected all of them and characterized them as salary-cap
proposals. Talks then shifted to the individual teams and away from
the issues that are philosophically keeping the sides apart.

"All of the players want to play hockey this season and we've
offered concessions worth hundreds of millions of dollars in
savings to the owners in order to avoid a lockout," Saskin said.

The NHL contends the players' association merely wants to
maintain the status quo.

"I couldn't tell you that we're further along in the process
toward a resolution today than we were two weeks ago when we
started this process," Daly said.

The NHLPA said owners are willing to lose a full season. NHL
commissioner Gary Bettman already has said he couldn't be persuaded
to adopt a luxury tax plan in his attempt to establish "cost
certainty." Bettman is determined to make sure the percentage of
revenues paid in player salaries is sliced.

An economic study commissioned by the NHL found players get 75
percent of league revenues -- far more than the percentage for the
other major team sports. The players' association has challenged
many of the league's findings.

If there is a lockout, it could prove worse than the one that
lasted 103 days and cut the 1994-95 season nearly in half. Owners
have been preparing for that possibility the last several years and
have built a $300 million war chest.

"The players are ready to sit out as long as it takes to get a
fair deal," Saskin said. "They are not going to be pushed around
into accepting an unfair deal through an owners' lockout."