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NHL, players move closer as talks continue

(MCT) — NEW YORK — A long day of negotiations between players and owners and a meeting of the NHL’s Board of Governors on Wednesday produced an agreement on how to split one kind of pie: the thin-crust pizza delivered to hungry reporters at about 11 p.m. by Steve Fehr, special counsel to the NHL Players’ Association.

How they will split the financial pie remains in dispute, but people familiar with the discussions said the talks had gained traction through earnest efforts by both sides. However, a new collective bargaining agreement had not been forged after players and owners met separately and jointly over about 10 hours at a Manhattan hotel, breaking up about 1 a.m. Eastern time.

“We had a series of very candid discussions tonight and we plan on meeting again” Thursday, said Winnipeg Jets defenseman Ron Hainsey, one of 18 players who participated in the talks with six owners Tuesday and Wednesday. An NHLPA spokesman said the group will talk internally before meeting with the league Thursday.

“We had good, candid dialogue. A lot of issues,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said. “There continue to be some critical open issues between the two parties and we understand the union should be getting back to us (Thursday) on some of those issues.”

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was excluded from the player-owner meetings, as was NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr. Daly and Steve Fehr led their respective delegations as players and owners heard new, more moderate voices, most notably businessman and Pittsburgh Penguins owner Ron Burkle.

The NHL has canceled games through Dec. 14 as well as the Winter Classic and All-Star game. This week’s talks are crucial to sustaining any chance to save the season.

Bettman updated the governors on the negotiations at the board meeting and clarified the league’s differences with the union on substantial issues. The financial gap isn’t huge — $182 million on “make whole” payments that would pay the full value of players’ current contracts when they go from 57 percent of hockey-related revenues to 50 percent — but the NHL is holding out for terms that would restrict free agency and salary arbitration in order to keep payrolls down and help small- and mid-market teams operate profitably.

The league sketched out a contingency plan for a shortened season, with a seven-day training camp leading up to a Christmas Day start and 58-game season. The NHL traditionally hasn’t scheduled games on Christmas.

Bettman spoke only briefly after the governors’ gathering.

“We are pleased with the process that is ongoing, and out of respect for that process I don’t have anything else to say and I’m not going to take any questions,” he said.

After the governors met, the NHLPA made a proposal that tweaked some of its previous points. The league responded, setting off a series of meetings.

Along the way, the NHL proposed a 10-year term for the new labor deal, up from its previous seven-year proposal but including an “out” clause after eight years. The NHLPA has proposed a five-year agreement because it doesn’t want the earnings of future players to be adversely affected if the deal doesn’t work out as anticipated. The NHL could keep owners happy by spreading out the make-whole payments over 10 years so players’ share of hockey-related revenues would stay below 50 percent.

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