By Ira Podell
The Associated Press
NEW YORK — The NHL and the players’ association will start the new year right where they ended the old one — at the bargaining table.
The sides got together Monday for the first time since Dec. 13, and the union brought along a counterproposal in response to the 288-page contract offer the NHL presented on Thursday. There were some discussions between the negotiators inside the league’s midtown Manhattan headquarters and some time spent apart in internal caucuses.
“This discussion was for us to respond and for them to ask questions and us to explain a number of the points we made,” union executive director Donald Fehr said. “We covered the range of subjects that their document included.”
After several hours passed, the NHL said it would be going over the players’ new contract offer on Monday night and would get back to the union in the morning. Commissioner Gary Bettman said he expected negotiations would restart Tuesday afternoon.
“There was an opportunity for the players’ association to highlight the areas that they thought we should focus on based on their response,” Bettman said. “That’s something we’ve now got to look at very closely in addition to the myriad other issues.”
Neither side chose to delve into details of what was offered in either of the proposals nor characterize any of the discussions that Fehr said “weren’t terribly long.”
The fact that neither offer was quickly dismissed could be taken as a positive sign that perhaps the gap has closed between them.
“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.
“I think it would be premature for me to characterize it and not particularly helpful to the process,” he said.
A crowd of people heading toward New Year’s celebrations in New York gathered around the large throng of reporters and television cameras focused in on Bettman and Fehr as the two leaders spoke separately on the busy sidewalk. Clearly, both men would rather have the attention back on the ice instead of themselves.
This was the first meeting in nearly three weeks since the last round of negotiations with a federal mediator on Dec. 13. After presenting their proposal, union representatives stayed in the building in case there were further discussions — later, with talks done for the day, the union said it expected a response from the NHL this morning.
The New Year’s clock ticked down while the window to reach a labor agreement to save the season was rapidly closing. Bettman said a deal needs to be reached by Jan. 11 to allow the season to begin by Jan. 19.
That leaves a little less than two weeks to reach an agreement and hold one week of training camp before the puck would drop on a 48-game campaign.
So far, a deal has proved elusive and well out of reach.
The league and the union had informational discussions — by conference call and in meetings — with staff members that lasted much of Saturday and ended Sunday. Those talks were spurred by the extensive contract proposal the NHL made on Thursday.
All games through Jan. 14 have been canceled, claiming more than 50 percent of the original schedule.
Bargaining sessions with only the NHL and union hadn’t been held since Dec. 6, when talks abruptly ended after the players’ association made a counterproposal. The league said that offer was contingent on the union accepting three elements unconditionally and without further bargaining.
The NHL then pulled all existing offers off the table. Two days of sessions with mediators the following week ended without progress.
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.
It is still possible this dispute could eventually be settled in the courts if the sides can’t reach a deal on their own.
The NHL filed a class-action suit this month in U.S. District Court in New York in an effort to show its lockout is legal. In a separate move, the league filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board, contending bad-faith bargaining by the union.
Those moves were made because the players’ association took steps toward potentially declaring a “disclaimer of interest,” which would dissolve the union and make it a trade association. That would allow players to file antitrust lawsuits against the NHL.
Union members voted overwhelmingly to give their board the power to file the disclaimer by Wednesday. If that deadline passes, another authorization vote could be held to approve a later filing.
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