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NHL-NHLPA reach important stage of talks on collective bargaining agreement

TORONTO - Where do we go from here?

As the NHL and NHL Players' Association resume collective bargaining talks, that is the question they're both seeking to answer.

The sides stepped away from negotiations last week with competing bids on the table and no clear road ahead. They spoke again over the weekend and agreed to devote sessions Wednesday and Thursday entirely to core economic issues—the area where the parties seem to have the most ground to make up.

"We are hoping that our meetings this week can serve as a jumping off point for further discussion and negotiation over the critical economic and system issues that we need to resolve in order to reach an agreement," deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Tuesday in an email.

Essentially, it's time to see how much each side is willing to move off its current position, if at all.

Donald Fehr spent the time between negotiating sessions holding regional player meetings—first in Chicago and then in Kelowna, B.C. After wrapping up his session there Tuesday, the NHLPA's executive director was measured in his assessment of the talks to come.

"The task is to try and find a way to make an agreement if that's something that the owners are inclined to do," Fehr told reporters. "I hope that they are and we'll see how it goes."

While a significant gap exists between the two proposals when it comes to the amount of money available to players, there is some common ground. The union's decision to keep a hard salary cap in place was an important step in the process and its willingness to accept less than 57 per cent of revenues—for three years, anyway—seemed to indicate it was trying to work with the NHL.

Even though commissioner Gary Bettman offered a cold public response to the union's "alternate view," some close to the talks believe it was a step in the right direction. Now who takes the next step (or two)?

The owners will almost certainly seek to get more money back than the players initially offered and they are said to have no interest in the fourth year of that proposal, which called for the system to snap back to its current position.

From the NHLPA's point of view, it has yet to even receive an offer worth considering. It has no interest in seeing revenues decreased anywhere near the 43 per cent range the NHL tabled last month and it also isn't enamoured with the new contract restrictions that were proposed either.

"The gulf that separates us is triggered essentially by the owners position that the players have to make enormous concessions—far more than they did the last time (in 2004-05)," said Fehr. "And what they did the last time was stunningly large."

The sides are operating in the shadow of a Sept. 15 deadline, when the current CBA is set to expire and the NHL has said players will be locked out. Talks are tentatively scheduled for the next two weeks in New York so there is plenty of room for continued dialogue if the parties can start getting on the same page in the coming days.

Beyond the monetary issue at the heart of talks, each side has prioritized a secondary cause.

The NHLPA has made it clear that it would like to see an increase in revenue sharing and proposed the creation of an industry growth fund that would see $100 million contributed each year for struggling teams. It would be part of a wider plan totalling $250 million in annual redistributed funds and Bettman would be given the power to determine how the money from the industry growth fund is spread around.

The NHL, meanwhile, is largely happy with the current economic system, but has made no secret of the fact it would like to see the end to heavily front-loaded, long-term contacts. As part of its proposal, deals would be capped at five years and would be required to pay the same amount each season.

However, it's reasonable to assume that the secondary issues could be taken care of once there's some movement on the main one—and that's the topic up for discussion this week.

As a result, the tone of talks in the coming days should offer a good indication of whether there's still a chance a new deal can be completed before Sept. 15.

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