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NHL's labour negotiations slow to a crawl as deadline gets closer

NEW YORK, N.Y. - The NHL's collective bargaining talks appear to be heading towards the brink.

With the process still in mediation and the sides spending another day apart, negotiations slowed to a crawl just one week from a season saving deadline that is suddenly coming in to full view.

There had been some hope a deal could be reached in time to open training camps this weekend and start a 52-game schedule the following Saturday. Now the best-case scenario appears to be 48 games, with commissioner Gary Bettman making it clear an agreement must be reached by Jan. 11 for that to happen.

The extra lost week of a shortened season and another 60 missed games across the league come at an estimated cost of roughly US$130 million in hockey-related revenue, according to a source. Or, put another way, as much as $120,000 on average per player.

The only talking the sides did on Friday was with U.S. federal mediator Scot Beckenbaugh, who walked back and forth between the league office and NHLPA's hotel several times during almost 13 hours of independent sessions. Beckenbaugh, no stranger to the process after being involved with the NHL's 2004-05 lockout, was said to be trying to help them work through the remaining issues.

The mediation was scheduled to continue on Saturday morning. It was unclear when the NHL and NHLPA might be prepared to hold another face-to-face meeting again.

That last happened on Wednesday night, when talks stretched into early Thursday morning and saw enough progress made for the NHLPA to elect not to declare a "disclaimer of interest" prior to a midnight deadline. Players have since been asked to vote on giving their executive board that power again in a ballot that wraps up at 6 p.m. ET on Saturday.

If they grant them that authority, the union could be dissolved and transformed into a trade association. That would likely be accompanied by anti-trust lawsuits from players and bring even more uncertainty to the negotiating process than already exists.

In the meantime, lawyer Shepard Goldfein—who represents the NHL—filed a memo with the district court in New York on Friday informing judge Paul Engelmayer that the sides agreed that they wouldn't need an expedited briefing schedule despite the ongoing talks. The judge had extended them that option a day earlier, when the NHLPA filed a response to a lawsuit from the NHL that is seeking to have the lockout declared legal.

As a result, the labour fight won't likely get very far in the courts unless the NHL and NHLPA are unable to reach a deal and another season is cancelled. However, the sides still have a conference scheduled before the judge on Monday morning.

There seemed to be a growing feeling among everyone involved in the process that negotiations were likely headed down to the wire. It left the majority of locked-out players with little to do beyond sitting around and waiting.

While a few eyebrows were raised when Penguins defenceman Kris Letang travelled to Russia this week to sign on with SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL, Pittsburgh teammate Sidney Crosby said Friday he was content to be patient before deciding on a place to play in Europe.

"You wait this long, trying to be optimistic, you can wait another week or however long until we know," Crosby told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "What's another week? After that, I'll have a pretty good idea of what I'm going to do.

"At this point, I'm just worried about playing here."

After more than six months of negotiations, it still remained to be seen whether the face of the sport would get that opportunity.

The sides have moved closer to one another with a series of proposals since Dec. 27, but still need to find agreement on the salary cap for next season, the length of player contracts, salary variance, the length of the CBA and pension plan, among other things.

The lockout will enter its 16th week on Sunday and many have already started asking questions about what kind of damage the sport's fourth work stoppage in 20 years has inflicted. Even though a definitive answer won't be known until a deal is eventually reached and a league coming off a record $3.3-billion in revenue resumes its operation, at least one player expressed regret about the inability of the two sides to get the game back on the ice sooner.

"For me, personally, I feel bad for (the fans) and embarrassed to be part of this whole situation," Carolina Hurricanes captain Eric Staal told the Raleigh News&Observer on Friday.

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