- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 19, 2005

NEW YORK — Many thought it was more than just coincidence that the dueling sides in hockey’s long-running labor dispute would be negotiating just hours before the NHL’s board of governors meeting. There was an air of optimism that finally some progress might be on the horizon.

However, the optimists were dealt another bitter setback. The NHL and the union representing more than 700 locked out players met for about 61/2 hours yesterday and reported no progress toward a settlement to the lockout, now seven months old.

Perhaps worse was the wording of a release from the league that talked of a more aggressive meeting schedule “over the next several weeks.”

The governors today are expected to start firming up decisions on what to do about next season — which they vow to play — and how they expect to round up enough players to field teams. Some sort of announcement is expected from the NHL on procuring replacement players and whether it will declare an impasse in negotiations.

But the issue of replacement players has not met with 100 percent approval from team executives. Many want that to be a last-ditch fix — or not a fix at all — to the problem. For instance, Phoenix Coyotes president Wayne Gretzky is rumored to be the team’s next coach, but he has said he will not step behind the bench if replacement players are involved.

“No substantive progress toward an agreement was made,” Bill Daly, chief negotiator for the league, said after yesterday’s meeting in New York. “The parties have agreed to arrange a more aggressive meeting schedule over the next several weeks in an attempt to move the process forward. We remain committed to doing everything we can to reach a negotiated solution as soon as possible.”

Commissioner Gary Bettman flatly stated after the governors’ March 1 meeting that there would be a season beginning in October, although he did not say what the NHL would do for playing personnel if the dispute continued.

But time is already becoming a factor if the league plans to get back into operation in the fall. It already has lost one full season and its All-Star Game, and the showcase portion of the annual entry draft has been wiped off the calendar. At this point in a normal season, ticket orders for next season should be trickling in while the sales staff seeks to keep sponsors in the fold or obtain new ones. Personnel evaluations should be well under way.

When the sides met April 4, the union presented a payroll plan linked to revenue, with a top scale of $50million per team and a low end payroll of $30 million based on $2 billion in revenue for the league. The plan allowed for both ends to be altered up or down depending on revenue.

But the league is believed to be in favor of a plan in which the gap between the top tier and the bottom end would be much smaller, believed to be no more then $5 million. And the NHL wants a cap on player costs not to exceed 54 percent of revenues, but the two sides are so far apart they cannot even agree on what constitutes revenue.

Bettman announced a lockout on Sept. 15 and officially canceled the season on Feb. 16. Nearly 400 players went to Europe to play, close to 200 ended up in North American minor leagues and some spent time with their families.

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