By Ira Podell, AP Sports Writer
NEW YORK (AP) – Hockey players are sticking together as a union for now and are working long and late hours with the NHL to try to reach a new collective bargaining agreement to get the game back on the ice.
The sides met in small groups throughout the day Wednesday and then held a full-scale bargaining session with a federal mediator at night that lasted nearly five hours and didn’t wrap up until about 1 a.m. Thursday.
They planned to get back at it less than 10 hours later.
The biggest detail to emerge from Wednesday night’s marathon talks was that Donald Fehr is still the executive director of the players’ association, which passed on its first chance to declare a disclaimer that would dissolve the union and turn it into a trade association.
Last month, players voted overwhelmingly in favor of giving the union executive board the right to declare the disclaimer, but that permission expired at midnight Wednesday. The disclaimer would allow individual players to file antitrust lawsuits against the NHL.
Fehr wouldn’t address the issue at all, calling it an “internal matter,” but NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said all the union would need to do is inform the league that it was taking the action for it to happen.
“The word disclaimer has yet to be uttered to us by the players’ association,” Bettman said. “It’s not that it gets filed anywhere with a court or the NLRB. When you disclaim interest as a union, you notify the other side. We have not been notified and it’s never been discussed, so there has been no disclaimer.”
Even though the deadline expired, a new vote by players can be held anytime to restore the authorization.
“All I can tell you about that is the players retain all the legal options they have always had and we don’t talk about legal matters,” Fehr said.
The thought was that the union wouldn’t take action Wednesday if it saw progress was being made. Neither side would characterize the talks or address what, if any, movement toward common ground was reached.
Both the league and the players were tightlipped about how many things still need to be worked out and what topics are keeping them apart. But the discussions went well enough for the NHL and the union to agree to the mediator’s request to start talking again at 10 a.m. Thursday.
“I’m not going to get into the details,” Bettman said. “There’s been some progress but we’re still apart on a number of issues. As long as the process continues I am hopeful.”
Bettman has told the union that a deal must be in place by Jan. 11 in order for a 48-game season to be played beginning eight days later.
The night session Wednesday began shortly after 8 p.m. EST. The sides also met for about an hour during the afternoon when the union gave its latest proposal to the league, a response to the NHL’s counteroffer on Tuesday.
Neither side said much regarding Wednesday’s discussions, but it is believed that the pension issue has become a major stumbling block.
“The pension plan is a very complicated issue,” Bettman said. “The number of variables and the number of issues that have to be addressed by people who carry the title actuary or pension lawyer are pretty numerous and it’s pretty easy to get off track.
“That is something we understand is important to the players.”
The union’s proposal Wednesday makes four offers between the sides since the NHL restarted negotiations Thursday with a proposal.
A small group meeting on the pension issue was held Wednesday morning before the players’ association presented its offer. A deal can’t be done without a resolution on pensions.
The league presented the players with a counteroffer Tuesday night in response to one the union made Monday.
The lockout reached its 109th day Wednesday, and Bettman has said that the league told the union a deal needs to be in place by next week so a 48-game season can begin on Jan. 19. All games through Jan. 14 along with the All-Star game have been canceled, claiming more than 50 percent of the original schedule.
Fehr believed an agreement on a players-funded pension had been reached before talks blew up in early December. That apparently wasn’t the case, or the NHL has changed its offer regarding the pension in exchange for agreeing to other things the union wanted.
The salary-cap number for the second year of the deal – the 2013-14 season – hasn’t been established, and it is another point of contention. The league is pushing for a $60 million cap, while the union wants it to be $65 million.
In return for the higher cap number players would be willing to forgo a cap on escrow.
“We talk about lots of things and we even had some philosophical discussions about why particular issues were important to each of us,” Bettman said. “That is part of the process.”
The NHL proposed in its first offer Thursday that pension contributions come out of the players’ share of revenues, and $50 million of the league’s make-whole payment of $300 million will be allocated and set aside to fund potential underfunding liabilities of the plan at the end of the collective bargaining agreement.
Last month, the NHL agreed to raise its make-whole offer of deferred payments from $211 million to $300 million as part of a proposed package that required the union to agree on three nonnegotiable points. Instead, the players’ association accepted the raise in funds, but then made counterproposals on the issues the league stated had no wiggle room.
“As you might expect, the differences between us relate to the core economic issues which don’t involve the share,” Fehr said of hockey-related revenue, which will likely be split 50-50.
The NHL is the only North American professional sports league to cancel a season because of a labor dispute, losing the 2004-05 campaign to a lockout. A 48-game season was played in 1995 after a lockout stretched into January.
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