Mediator ‘shuttle’ negotiating

NEW YORK (AP) — A federal mediator bridged the widening gap
between the NHL and the players’ association during 12 hours of talks
without getting the fighting sides in the same room.

No one would say if progress was made
over the course of the day and night Friday when mediator Scot
Beckenbaugh walked back and forth between union and NHL headquarters in
Manhattan to hold separate discussions with each side.

He began at 10 a.m. EST and didn’t stop until nearly 11 p.m.

There are still no plans for the league
and the players to get back to the bargaining table for the first time
since the early morning hours of Thursday, but Beckenbaugh scheduled
more mediation sessions for Saturday morning.

“I’m looking forward to continuing the
process tomorrow,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly wrote to The
Associated Press in an email late Friday night.

Beckenbaugh also took part in talks during the 2004-05 lockout, which forced the cancellation of the whole season.

After marathon talks broke off
overnight Wednesday, the sides have remained apart with the exception of
two smaller meetings on Thursday.

The lockout reached its 111th day
Friday, and there is only one week left to reach a deal on a collective
bargaining agreement that would allow for a 48-game hockey season — the
minimum the NHL has said it will play.

Commissioner Gary Bettman set a Jan. 11 deadline so the season can begin eight days later.

The players could be looking to wait
until Saturday night to return to the bargaining table when it is
expected that the executive board will again have the authority to
exercise a disclaimer of interest that would allow the union to dissolve
and become a trade association.

A vote among union members was
initiated Thursday, and players have until 6 p.m. Saturday to cast their
ballots that would allow the board to take the action of the
disclaimer. An earlier vote passed overwhelmingly last month, but the
union let its self-imposed deadline pass Wednesday night without acting
on it.

A restoration of authority to go the
route of the disclaimer might be the leverage the union wants before it
starts negotiating again. If the union is dissolved, players can file
individual antitrust suits against the NHL.

Representatives from the league and the
union met twice Thursday for small meetings, one dealing with the
pension plan, but never got together for a full bargaining session. A
long night of discussions Wednesday that stretched into the early
morning hours didn’t end well and created Thursday’s lack of activity.

The sides can’t afford many more days like that.

All games through Jan. 14, along with
the All-Star game, have been canceled, claiming more than 50 percent of
the original schedule.

The talks appeared to take a downward
turn late Wednesday after the players’ association passed on declaring a
disclaimer of interest.

The discord carried over to Thursday
when Bettman had said he expected to resume negotiations at 10 a.m. at
the request of the mediator. But the union was holding internal meetings
then and didn’t arrive at the league office until a few hours later.

When players and staff did get there,
they did so without executive director Donald Fehr. The group discussed a
problem that arose regarding the reporting by clubs of hockey-related
revenue, and how both sides sign off on the figures at the end of the
fiscal year. The union felt the language had been changed without proper
notification, but the dispute was solved and the meeting ended in about
an hour.

The wait for more elaborate talks went
on, and didn’t end until the players returned — again without Fehr —
for a meeting about the pension plan. That one lasted just under two
hours, and again the waiting game ensued.

The players’ association held a late
Thursday afternoon conference call to initiate its second vote regarding
the disclaimer of interest. It wasn’t immediately known when a new
authorization would expire if the vote passes again.

A sense of progress might be why the
union didn’t declare the disclaimer Wednesday, but any optimism created
after the deadline passed took several hits Thursday.

The NHLPA filed a motion in federal
court in New York seeking to dismiss the league’s suit to have the
lockout declared legal. The NHL sued the union in mid-December, figuring
the players were about to submit their own complaint against the league
and possibly break up their union to gain an upper hand.

But the union argued that the NHL is
using this suit “to force the players to remain in a union. Not only is
it virtually unheard of for an employer to insist on the unionization of
its employees, it is also directly contradicted by the rights
guaranteed to employees under … the National Labor Relations Act.”

The court scheduled a status conference for the sides on Monday.

The sides have traded four proposals in
the past week — two by each side — but none has gained enough
traction. Getting an agreement on a pension plan would likely go a long
way toward an agreement that would put hockey back on the ice.

Fehr believed a plan for a
players-funded pension was established before talks blew up in early
December. That apparently wasn’t the case, or the NHL has changed its
offer regarding the pension in exchange for agreeing to other things the
union wanted.

The salary-cap number for the second
year of the deal — the 2013-14 season — hasn’t been agreed to, and it
is another major point of contention. The league is pushing for a $60
million cap, while the union wants it to be $65 million with a floor of
$44 million.

In return for the higher cap number players would be willing to forgo a cap on escrow.

Other issues still needing resolution
include the maximum length of player contracts, the variance in salary
for each year of those individual deals, and how long the new CBA should
be in effect.

Both sides seem content on it lasting
for 10 years, but they have different opinions on whether an opt-out
should be allowed to be exercised after seven years or eight.

The NHL proposed last Thursday that
pension contributions come out of the players’ share of revenues, and
$50 million of the league’s make-whole payment of $300 million will be
allocated and set aside to fund potential underfunded liabilities of the
plan at the end of the collective bargaining agreement.

Last month, the NHL agreed to raise its
make-whole offer of deferred payments from $211 million to $300 million
as part of a proposed package that required the union to agree on three
non-negotiable points. Instead, the union accepted the raise in funds,
but then made counterproposals on the issues the league stated had no
wiggle room.

“As you might expect, the differences
between us relate to the core economic issues which don’t involve the
share,” Fehr said of hockey-related revenue, which likely will be split
50-50.

Last season, the NHL posted record revenues of $3.3 billion.

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.