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As NHL's labour talks resume, Fehr says union is close to counter-proposal

TORONTO - The NHL Players' Association is almost ready to table its own vision for a new collective bargaining agreement.

As negotiations with the NHL resumed Tuesday, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr indicated that the union was getting close to responding to the league's initial proposal, which included a decreased share of hockey-related revenue, term limits on contracts and a 22 per cent salary rollback.

"I doubt that it will be weeks plural," said Fehr. "But could it be two? Yeah. It could be two, it could be less."

The sides have entered gently into talks. This week's three-day session in Toronto marks the fifth consecutive week Fehr and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman have sat across the table from one another, but they still seem to be feeling their way into the process.

The NHL delivered its initial CBA proposal to the union during a bargaining session on July 13. In response, the NHLPA requested a "fair amount of additional information," according to Fehr.

"They've indicated that they're in the process of compiling it and will get it to us," he said. "In addition to looking hard at what they've given us and doing our own work, we're going to have to look at that additional information before we get to the stage of making a proposal of our own, making a counter-proposal or doing something else."

Serious negotiations won't begin until that happens.

On Tuesday, the three-hour session at NHLPA headquarters largely centred around how the league handles discipline. Brendan Shanahan, the league's disciplinarian, was in attendance along with Colin Campbell, Rob Blake and Stephane Quintal—all members of the hockey operations staff. Veteran Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford and Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke also took part.

The union's delegation included 10 players, four of which—Chris Campoli, B.J. Crombeen, Steve Montador and Daniel Winnik—are part of its negotiating committee.

So far, both sides have described the talks as amicable.

"We've had good discussions across the table," said Bettman. "I think the lines of communication have been good, the temperature in the room has been good. And so the process continues."

Bettman has been loathe to speak publicly about virtually anything pertaining to the CBA. Fehr has so far been more open about the process, and made it clear Tuesday that his membership is interested in seeing the current system of discipline changed as part of the next agreement.

"It's no secret that that's an issue which has sparked a lot of discussion among players," he said.

The sides will continue talks in Toronto on Wednesday and Thursday and are scheduled to get right back at it next week with sessions in New York on Monday and Tuesday. The CBA expires Sept. 15.

At this stage, Bettman remains optimistic that there is enough time to complete a deal without having a lockout like the one that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season.

"We think that if everybody works hard, we can get the job done in the appropriate time frame," said Bettman.

"I'm not going to place odds on it," he added. "I'm focused on making a deal, not on what might happen if we don't."

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