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NHL, union get back to bargaining table, but no progress made on player contract issues

The NHL logo is seen on a goal net at a Nashville Predators practice rink on Monday, Sept. 17, 2012, in Nashville, Tenn. NHL owners and players are getting back to the bargaining table after a one-day break. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Mark Humphrey

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The NHL logo is seen on a goal net at a Nashville Predators practice rink on Monday, Sept. 17, 2012, in Nashville, Tenn. NHL owners and players are getting back to the bargaining table after a one-day break. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Mark Humphrey

NEW YORK, N.Y. - Both sides in the NHL labour fight seem willing to talk. The problem is neither group likes what is being said at the other end of the table.

Negotiations restarted Sunday following a one-day break, but they were over about 90 minutes after they began. And what is worse, there is no clear plan for them to get going again.

Only the hot-button issue of player-contract terms was on the agenda Sunday. The players' side felt NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was saying that there was no room for bargaining. Once the union heard that, it saw no reason to keep talking.

"The owners made it clear there is no give with respect to their proposals unless the players are willing to take them—this is my phrase, not theirs—down to the comma, then there is nothing to do, that we're past the point of give and take," players' association executive director Donald Fehr said.

The league countered the players' association assessment of the situation, but its view wasn't enough to keep the conversation going. There is still a chance there will be more negotiations on Monday in Toronto, where leaders on both sides will be for Hockey Hall Of Fame inductions, but that wasn't going to be determined until they touch base again.

NHL owners want to limit contracts to five years, make rules to prohibit back-diving contracts the league feels circumvent the salary cap, keep players ineligible for unrestricted free agency until they are 28 or have eight years of professional service time, cut entry-level deals to two years, and make salary arbitration after five years.

Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Sunday that owners have conveyed the message to him that these issues are of vital importance in a new deal. While there could be room to negotiate within the framework, the bottom line remains the same.

"It's fair to say, while there was a candid discussion on those issues, and certainly each side explained their positions to the other, I don't think there was any progress on those issues," Daly said. "I would've hoped that during the course of the past week they would've shown some movement on those issues toward us, knowing what our fundamental concerns are. The message we basically got this week was, 'We know what your contracting proposals are, we're not prepared to agree to them.'

"They are not issues that can be traded off. They are all important issues to us. That doesn't mean you can't talk about them and shake them. There is flexibility around the issues we need to achieve, but they are not issues that we can walk away from."

Neither side is shutting the door on getting back to the table soon, but frustration is clearly growing.

"The two sides will be talking," Fehr said. "I don't know when we will get back together again. I suspect it won't be too long, but I don't have any idea. We've indicated to them that when they resume, we'd like it to be in Toronto soon. We're meeting down here in large part because of the convenience, especially after the hurricane, for the families and staff of the NHL. Now we'd like to get some of our people back to their families, too."

Getting together hasn't been a problem recently once tensions thawed after both sides rejected proposals on Oct. 18.

Daly met with union special counsel Steve Fehr last weekend, and that led to four straight days of talks this week in New York that ended on a sour note Friday night. Donald Fehr and Bettman also took part in Sunday's brief discussions.

Daly, Steve Fehr and Los Angeles Kings forward Kevin Westgarth got together for an informal lunch meeting on Saturday, and the sides made plans Sunday morning to meet again at the NHL's Manhattan office.

They just couldn't gain any traction.

Despite reports that talks on Friday got heated before negotiations ended, Daly said Sunday he doesn't feel animosity has crept into the bargaining room. However, if the sides can't find common ground, there won't be a deal anytime soon to save the already delayed and shortened season.

A few hours into Friday's third session of talks, negotiations broke down over the core economic differences that separate the sides and are threatening the season completely. The lockout already has caused the NHL to call off 327 regular-season games, including the New Year's Day Winter Classic. A lockout wiped out the entire 2004-05 season.

"I always like to look at the glass as half-full, not half-empty. I like to be optimistic," Daly said. "I don't know exactly where they are on economics. I hope we're getting closer in that regard. With respect to these issues, they are important issues.

"If we can find some way to address our concerns in these (player contract) issues, we can move this process forward. Right now, given their opposition to addressing some of these issues, I don't know where we go."

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