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Sides to meet again Thursday in Toronto

The bid to jump-start NHL labor negotiations appears to have been a success.

Union president Trevor Linden and NHL board of directors chairman Harley Hotchkiss spoke Wednesday at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, and the sides are due to meet again Thursday in Toronto in an effort to save the season.

Wednesday's session lasted about five hours, including several breaks so each three-man negotiating group could huddle. It was just the third time the league and its players have had face-to-face talks in the four months since the lockout was imposed Sept. 15.

"We engaged in good dialogue today and will continue our discussions in the near future," Linden said. "We will not make any further comment at this time."

More than half of the regular season -- 662 of 1,230 games
through Wednesday -- has been wiped out so far, plus the All-Star
Game.

At this point, it doesn't appear that either side is prepared to
break the ice and put forth a new proposal.

If Wednesday's meeting does represent a key step forward in the
negotiations, it might be worth noting who was not present: NHL
commissioner Gary Bettman and union chief Bob Goodenow.

Linden reached out to the owners and invited Hotchkiss to talk.
The center for the Vancouver Canucks hoped that by holding talks
without the leaders of the two sides, some of the acrimony could be removed from
the negotiating process.

"We credit Trevor Linden's initiative in requesting this
session, which was informal, open and professional and which
resulted in a constructive exchange of viewpoints," Hotchkiss
said.

NHL chief legal officer Bill Daly joined Hotchkiss and outside
counsel Bob Batterman in representing the NHL; Linden, NHLPA senior
director Ted Saskin, and outside counsel John McCambridge were
there for the players.

Linden didn't have a new proposal, and he wasn't looking for
attention. Indeed, it wasn't until late Tuesday that word filtered
out were the meeting would be.

"The parties had a good, candid dialogue, and we intend to talk
again," Daly said. "Out of respect for the process, we have no
further comment at this time."

The participants are expected to be the same on Thursday, except for Hotchkiss who will be attending the funeral of J.R. (Bud) McCaig, another member of the Flames' ownership group who died last week. Saskin will take part in the meeting, despite the death of
his mother on Wednesday.

These were the first talks since Dec. 14. That was when the
sides broke three months of silence by sitting down for the second
time in six days, but any optimism was lost quickly.

The players presented a proposal that offered an immediate 24
percent rollback on all existing contracts, but owners rejected the
plan, saying it didn't provide cost certainty.

The NHL presented a counterproposal, which was turned down as
soon as the players' association saw that the offer included a
salary cap.

Since then, other than rhetoric, there had been silence.

If the next round of talks don't move the sides to a settlement,
the season probably would be lost. That would mean the Stanley Cup
wouldn't be awarded for the first time since 1919, when a flu
epidemic canceled the final series between Seattle and Montreal.

No major North American sports league has missed an entire
season because of a labor dispute.