NHL, players’ union set to meet at league offices

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NEW YORK (AP) - The NHL and the union are back at the bargaining table and seem determined to work toward a deal to save the hockey season.

A full day of talks was planned for Tuesday, one day after negotiations resumed following nearly three weeks apart. On Monday, the players’ association presented a counterproposal to an offer made by the league late last week. The NHL spent Monday night reviewing the document, then got together again with the union Tuesday.

Small groups from each side met and conferred by conference calls all afternoon about provisions of a potential collective bargaining agreement. A full meeting of the negotiating teams wasn’t expected at the league office before 6:30 or 7 p.m. EST, a union spokesman said. The NHL then requested that the meeting be pushed back to 9 p.m.

What is clear is that time has become a real factor.

“We’ve said we need to drop the puck by Jan. 19 if we’re going to play a 48-game season,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “We don’t think it makes sense to play a season any shorter than that.”

That leaves a little less than two weeks to reach an agreement and hold one week of training camp before starting the season. All games through Jan. 14 have been canceled, claiming more than 50 percent of the original schedule.

The NHL is the only North American professional sports league to cancel a season because of a labor dispute, losing the 2004-05 campaign to a lockout. A 48-game season was played in 1995 after a lockout stretched into January.

The NHL was supposed to be celebrating its annual outdoor Winter Classic between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday _ the 108th day of the lockout _ at Michigan Stadium. But that game was canceled long ago along with the All-Star game.

Monday’s talks marked the first time the NHL and union met in person since Dec. 13. Bettman says a deal must be reached by Jan. 11 so the season can begin eight days later.

When the sides met Monday, the union brought a condensed counterproposal in response to the NHL’s 288-page contract offer. There were some discussions between the negotiators and some time spent apart in internal meetings.

Neither side would elaborate on what was offered in either proposal or characterize any of Monday’s discussions that union executive director Donald Fehr said “weren’t terribly long.”

“There was an opportunity for the players to highlight the areas they thought we should focus on based on their response, and that’s something we’ve got to look at very closely in addition to the myriad of other issues,” Bettman said. “The process continues and we’re anticipating getting back together.”

That neither offer was quickly dismissed could be taken as a positive sign that perhaps the gap has narrowed.

“I’m out of the prediction business,” Fehr said. “You get up every day and you try to figure out how to make an agreement that day, and if it fails you try and do it the next day. That’s exactly where we are.”

Bettman also reserved judgment when asked if progress was made.

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