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.