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Silence will be a good sign when NHL, NHLPA resume talks on Tuesday

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (left) arrives with deputy commissioner Bill Daly for collective bargaining talks in Toronto on Wednesday October 16, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

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NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (left) arrives with deputy commissioner Bill Daly for collective bargaining talks in Toronto on Wednesday October 16, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

For those hoping to see a resolution to the NHL lockout, silence is the best sound that can come out of Tuesday's collective bargaining talks.

Negotiations have reached a critical juncture with the league and NHL Players' Association scheduled to meet in New York City.

Very little was said after an informal meeting between deputy commissioner Bill Daly and NHLPA special counsel Steve Fehr over the weekend—something both sides have quietly warned might happen when progress started being made.

The trend continued on the eve of formal talks resuming. When asked Monday if he was optimistic that negotiations could pick up steam this week, Daly responded: "Sorry, going to keep quiet between now and the end of these meetings."

These are clearly delicate times.

At this point, it seems the only thing that would see either side resume giving public updates is a breakdown in negotiations. Internally, there's a sense that the time for waging a public relations battle is over.

The lengthy meeting between Daly and Fehr, held at an undisclosed location, serves as an interesting precursor to Tuesday's bargaining session. In brief statements, the men acknowledged having a "frank discussion" on the "most important issues" while sitting down together for several hours.

One veteran labour negotiator indicated that the quiet setting would likely have been beneficial to the deputies at this stage in the process. "If there's lots of wood to chop, it will happen in private," he said.

The biggest issue the sides have to bridge a gap on is the mechanism that would see all existing contracts honoured in full, even after the players' overall share in revenue is reduced to 50 per cent from its current position of 57 per cent. A "make whole" provision in the NHL's Oct. 16 offer attempted to do that, but the NHLPA didn't like that deferred payments would count against the earning potential of future players.

The league has since indicated a willingness to see owners assume more of the liability but hasn't yet presented a formal offer on that matter, according to a source.

There are also contract issues to sort out. Among the changes suggested by the NHL are a five-year cap on contracts, entry-level deals that last two years instead of three and unrestricted free agency beginning at age 28 or after eight years of service.

NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr has said he doesn't believe players should have to give up any of the concessions they earned in those areas during the last round of negotiations.

The union held a Monday afternoon conference call with its negotiating committee and executive board to update constituents on where things stood heading into another round of talks.

While there appeared to be some reason for optimism with the sides getting back to the bargaining table, a number of players spoke of the importance of remaining even-keel. The negotiations have had plenty of ups and downs over the last few months.

"I'm more confident (now) because there is dialogue and that's good," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on Monday. "Nothing, I don't think, got settled (over the weekend) as far as a clear-cut issue. They've talked about it, agreed to a meeting this week and that's good.

"You kind of don't want to read into anything."

The best-case scenario for the NHL is a shortened season that begins on Dec. 1.

With all regular-season games cancelled until then, the league and union have a little over two weeks to sign off on a new CBA and open training camps that would last roughly seven days. They'll clearly need to start working towards that goal as soon as Tuesday.

The best clue they're making progress will likely come from how many details of the meeting emerge after its finished.

At this point, the less that is said the better.

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