- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2005

Crunch time is an expression used in the NHL to define the segment of the schedule when a team either shows its playoff mettle within a very short span of time or slinks off to prepare for golf season.

The league and its players were going through crunch time yesterday in an effort to save what little remains of the 2004-05 season. The NHL and the players’ association met for about nine hours — the first lengthy session in the nearly five months of the dispute — and will resume talks today in an attempt to prevent the entire campaign from being lost.

The two sides met at an undisclosed location in New York beginning at 1:30 p.m. It was the sixth negotiating session within two weeks after the sides went five weeks without exchanging so much as a phone call.

“A collective bargaining meeting … began Thursday afternoon and continued into Thursday night,” a short announcement from the league said last night. “In deference to the process, there will be no comment, and no further update is expected tonight.”

There was a new element in yesterday’s talks. For the first time since Dec. 14, the two principals were included in the discussions. Commissioner Gary Bettman represented the league and NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow the union. The pair purposely had been excluded from the previous five sessions in the hope some progress could be made.

But it became apparent that little could actually be accomplished without the two leaders in the room to signal their approval or rejection of any issue.

Today is the 142nd day of the owners’ lockout, the league’s second work stoppage in 10 years. So far, 63 percent of the 1,230 scheduled games have been canceled. The first lockout, at the start of the 1994-95 season, lasted 103 days and resulted in a 48-game schedule crammed into a 72-day span.

The root cause of the two lockouts is the same: Management is demanding a hard salary cap to stem uncontrolled spending by some owners that has resulted in huge losses. The union, meanwhile, has not changed its stance in 10 years, refusing to accept a cap on spending.

There are dozens of other issues, but it is thought they could be settled in rapid fashion or even after the main sticking point is put to rest.

On Wednesday, the NHL put into writing the proposal it presented orally last week, a proposal the NHLPA said it would reject if it was presented in writing. The league did so, and the union kept its promise. The plan proposed raising to as much as 55 percent the amount of revenue that would be paid to players, but the proposal nonetheless was governed by a salary cap, which the union will not accept.

The league maintains it cannot survive in the current economic climate where 19 of 30 teams say they lost money. It claims to have lost a collective $500 million during the past two seasons, a figure the union strongly disputes. The NHLPA believes millions of dollars were not included in the league’s accounting, making losses appear much larger than they actually were.

This is the third work stoppage in the history of the NHL. Besides the mid-‘90s lockout, the players went on strike for 12 days in 1992 to protest the commercial use of their images by the league without permission. The players won, the season was concluded and playoffs staged.

If this season is canceled, the NHL would be the first professional league in North America to lose an entire season to a labor dispute. And it would be the first time the Stanley Cup was not awarded since 1919, when the Canadian government ordered the playoff finals between Montreal and Seattle halted after five games because of a flu epidemic that already had killed a Montreal player.

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