- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 20, 2005

The optimism that resulted from nearly five hours of good dialogue Wednesday reverted to stark reality yesterday as the possibility grew ever stronger that the NHL would not play a single game during what was to have been the 2004-05 season.

Second-tier negotiators broke off talks in Toronto yesterday after an additional 41/2 hours of discussions and left the session conceding they were no closer than when the meetings began Wednesday in Chicago.

“We remain divided philosophically,” said Vancouver Canucks center Trevor Linden, president of the NHL Players Association.

Bill Daly, the NHL’s chief legal officer, said, “We continue to have some strong philosophical differences.”

What the two sides did agree on was that no additional talks have been scheduled.

The NHL locked out the players Sept.15, vowing there would be no season until the players accepted “cost certainty,” the union’s euphemism for a hard salary cap. Since then, more than half of the 1,230 scheduled games have been wiped out, and more than half the players have gone to professional leagues in Europe to compete and earn a living.

The union responded to the league’s demands by offering a one-time 24 percent salary cut, plus other incentives. The two sides quickly dismissed each other’s proposals, offering their own versions of the statistical facts in the case.

The meetings this week were proposed by Linden in an effort to get talks moving. There have been very few actual face-to-face negotiations in this labor dispute because of management’s insistence the union accept a hard salary cap before talks could start.

Nonetheless, three individuals from each side jumped at the chance to open dialogue, and it appeared there had been a promising start after everybody walked away from Wednesday’s meeting voicing optimism. But it appeared the union’s refusal to accept a hard cap and the owners’ insistence on having one to offset what they claim are nearly a half-billion dollars in losses during the past two seasons prevented any real progress.

Time has become the biggest factor in the dispute. If any portion of a season is to be played, one would assume it must start within two weeks to be meaningful at all. It is estimated it would take at least a week for NHL teams to reassemble their personnel and about 10 days to get into some form of playing shape.

“We know time is not an ally,” said Ted Saskin, a senior director of the union. But, he added, “Our lines of communication are open. … We clearly have some strong differences of opinion.”

Said Daly: “We had two good days of communication. But I can’t say we’re any closer.”

The meetings were moved from Chicago to Toronto in part to assist Saskin, whose mother died Wednesday. Also not present yesterday was Calgary Flames owner Harley Hotchkiss, who was attending a funeral.

If the season is a washout, it would be just the second time since the NHL has been in charge of the Stanley Cup that the oldest team trophy in pro sports was not awarded. It would be the first time in North America an entire pro season was not played because of a labor dispute.

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