- The Washington Times - Friday, December 3, 2004

After going nearly three months without speaking, the NHL has accepted an invitation from its locked-out union to meet next Thursday and Friday in Toronto.

The NHL Players’ Association confirmed yesterday it was working on a proposal it hoped would reopen negotiations. The union earlier denied such a plan was in the works.

Initial reaction to news of the meeting was good, but observers doubted much would be accomplished because of the wide gulf between the two sides. One said he would consider the meetings a success if there was a second day of talks.

Even the announcements that there would be meetings contained barbs.

“Almost three months have passed since the players made their last proposal, and we have yet to receive a counteroffer,” Bob Goodenow, executive director of the union, said in a release. He said he hoped “our new proposal will provide a basis to end the owners’ lockout and resume NHL hockey.”

Bill Daly, the league’s chief legal officer, said in a release he hoped the “offer will be a meaningful effort to address the league’s economic problems. When we receive the proposal, we will evaluate it closely and respond appropriately.”

The two sides last met Sept.9 when the union presented a plan that proposed a luxury tax, a one-time salary rollback, a reduced rookie salary cap and other items. The league rejected it out of hand and locked the players out six days later.

“I think the NHLPA is more than willing to negotiate a fair deal, and hopefully this is a step in the right direction,” said Washington Capitals center Jeff Halpern. Halpern said he would represent the team’s players at any future union meetings.

Interestingly, the union invitation and league acceptance came only hours before NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was host for a dinner meeting of general managers in New York City. The meeting was planned to bring GMs up to date on the work stoppage.

Next Thursday would have been the 56th day of the season had it started on time. As it is, 360 games, 29 percent of the schedule, will have been canceled by the time the two sides sit down.

When the league-imposed six-week advanced lifting of booking restrictions on arenas is taken into consideration, the first available date for a game would be Jan.23 — meaning 672 games, 55 percent of the schedule, would be lost.

The last NHL work stoppage was a 103-day lockout at the start of the 1994-95 season. Play finally started Jan.21 with a 48-game season shoe-horned into a 72-day campaign. The two sides now have almost no hope of getting this season started by mid- to late-January.

Many believe the memory of that earlier labor dispute is driving the increasing animosity among the hierarchy of both sides in this one. It is generally conceded Goodenow and his union came out the winners in the 1994 lockout, one of the factors that led to rapidly escalating salaries. The average NHL salary in 1994 was $733,300; last season it was $1.83million.

Owners are demanding a hard salary cap but have attempted to disguise the terminology by using terms such as “cost certainty.” Bettman has said there can be no negotiations until the union accepts the basic league demand for “cost certainty.”

The league has maintained its 30 teams suffered collective losses of nearly $500million during the past two seasons alone. The union has long disputed those figures and recently won backing from Forbes magazine, which reported after its own audit that losses were less than half that amount.

It is thought the union’s new plan will include a far stronger luxury tax system and other cost-saving proposals. But based on the league’s oft-repeated position, if it doesn’t include a hard salary cap by whatever definition it chooses, it won’t fly.

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