- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 22, 2005

Suddenly, after eight months and one canceled season, there appears to be a sense of urgency in the labor talks between the NHL and the players it locked out back on Sept.15.

Through Friday, the two sides had met seven times during the previous 11 days, including a marathon 14-hour session Thursday. And instead of going to Austria the previous week for the world hockey championships, the negotiators stayed in New York City and talked.

The result was that for the first time in a dispute that will be 250 days old tomorrow, both sides have reported some progress in negotiations. Neither side went into great detail about the degree of progress but the atmosphere certainly was different from the terse one-sentence announcements that usually had been issued after the meetings.

There may be good reason both sides have stepped up the frequency of meetings and the urgency to get things done in a hurry. Key advertising agencies in New York and Toronto have let the league know that advertising monies for the fall schedule will be committed within the next two weeks and if there is no agreement, there is no financial commitment.

“Every day that goes by, the league probably loses some money,” Doug Checkeris, president of the Media Company in Toronto, told the Toronto Globe & Mail. “This is the moment for them to announce they have an agreement to maximize their television revenue for the fall. … Most people don’t think it’s an issue until the fall but really, all of the dollars are getting committed now.”

Along with financial commitments, over-the-air and cable networks already have come out with fall schedules that have no holes right now for an NHL. And ESPN has about a month to decide if it wants to pick up its option to carry the NHL next season, if there is a next season.

The two sides have treated this affair as if they were preparing for the next millennium. There were no talks for the first 84 days of the lockout, then two brief meetings during the five days that followed. Union and management then went another 35 days before exchanging views again.

Management and union met nine times in February but three of those sessions were with federal mediators. There have been nine sessions this month, some of them between small groups discussing specific subjects. It is possible one or more of those groups may have provided the momentum to keep talks moving forward.

If there was a breakthrough, it might have come during Thursday’s 14 hours of discussions. The two sides broke off at midnight with a few principals scheduled to meet Friday to set up a timetable for meetings for this week. Instead, the principals summoned the full teams for both sides and eight more hours of negotiations ensued.

In another development, the two Wall Street firms that submitted an unsolicited bid in February of $3.3billion to the NHL board of directors to purchase the entire league have come back with a new bid, this one in the neighborhood of $4.3billion. All 30 teams would have to agree to a buyout, which is highly unlikely.

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