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Thursday, March 10, 2005
Meeting place still a secret

Associated Press

NEW YORK -- The next round of NHL talks were scheduled quickly and will be held quietly.

Just over three weeks after the hockey season was canceled, the league and the players' association will return to the bargaining table Friday, a source with knowledge of the discussions told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

But everything else about the meeting is still a secret.

"We intend to treat it confidentially because we don't see the need or the benefit of media scrutiny or glare on this meeting," NHL chief legal officer Bill Daly said Wednesday at the World Congress of Sports.

Daly and players' association senior director Ted Saskin took part in a labor-related panel at the conference, but the negotiators talked more at each other than to one another.

They will, however, be back at the bargaining table soon, along with their bosses: commissioner Gary Bettman and union executive director Bob Goodenow.

"Depending on the approach taken, that will impact how it moves forward," Saskin said.

Daly and Saskin answered questions separately Wednesday, and stated and debated their respective positions. The sides haven't met for negotiations since Feb. 19, three days after Bettman canceled the season.

"I'm not prepared to give you an agenda, but a lot of it will be determined once we get in the room," Daly said. "I think there's a lot of uncertainty as to what the position of the union will be and whether they have an interest in doing a deal."

The NHL invited the players' association back to the table last week and a meeting was set up shortly after. The league has taken more of an interest in restarting talks sooner rather than later because it would like to have a deal in place to hold the June draft on time and get its relaunch plan under way.

Players wanted to take more of a break. They have less of an incentive to get back to the table now because they are not due to be paid again until next season.

No proposals are expected to be exchanged Friday. All previous offers are off the table, including the league's decision to drop its demand for cost certainty and the union's willingness to accept a salary cap in return.

"When we're just coming off the cancellation of the season, it would not be appropriate to just get in and start firing proposals," Saskin said before flying home to Toronto. "Certainly a lot has been learned over the last few years and I think people understand the hot buttons, they understand the issues that might lead to progress and might not."

Bettman reiterated Wednesday that the league is committed to starting next season on time and with a collective bargaining agreement with the union. But if that doesn't occur, he will consider using replacement players to ensure there is hockey in the fall.

"We have lots of options, and obviously that is one of them," Bettman said.

The sale of all 30 teams to an investment firm and a sports advisory company isn't a likely one. The group offered to buy the league for what Bettman called "an opening bid" of $3.3 billion. But every team would have to agree, and so far aren't willing to do so.

"The fact of the matter is I believe the offer would be more sizable if, in fact, the owners were seriously interested in pursuing it," Bettman said.

The pursuit is still in trying to find a way to make a deal to end the lockout. The NHL is already dealing with the stigma of being the first major sports league to lose a full season to a labor dispute.

Bettman tried to convey the message that the NHL is still quite viable, but he put it ahead of only lesser leagues such as the Arena Football League.

"Before the work stoppage we were a $2.1 billion business. Other than basketball, football and baseball, among the team sports, there's nobody close to us," he said.

And that's how the sides want to keep things this week. Both are concealing details of the meeting that will set the tone for talks expected to continue into the summer.

"We've had secret meetings, we've had public meetings -- all of which hasn't worked to date," Saskin said. "Maybe we have to reassess how we approach it. I think there is a well-deserved feeling among a lot of fans that they're kind of fed up with watching negotiations unfold in public. They'd rather hear us announce that we've made some progress and that we're on our way to getting a deal than just keep hearing that we haven't made any progress.

"So maybe it will serve the process better if we can keep things on a quieter scale."