At least they're talking

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:46 AM ET

The hockey world could use some Chicago Hope today -- and we're not talking the old TV medical drama.

While initial belief is that today's low-level meeting in the Windy City won't change the four-month lockout impasse one iota, it wouldn't be the first labour dispute solved by a B team of negotiators.

"That's exactly how the 1994 talks were kick-started," said a general manager from that era who wished to remain anonymous. "At least it offers an opening, something for hope."

The two sides haven't met since well before Christmas, with less than two weeks to go before the season would be declared dead by the calendar, if not by National Hockey League edict.

UNDISCLOSED LOCATION

In the undisclosed location today will be NHL Players Association president Trevor Linden, senior union adviser Ted Saskin and outside counsel John McCambridge. Representing the league will be board of governors chairman Harley Hotchkiss, NHL executive vice-president and chief legal officer Bill Daly and the league's outside counsel, Bob Batterman. Linden had suggested the meeting earlier in the week.

Not in attendance will be chief antagonists Bob Goodenow of the PA and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. Since the owners didn't jump at the players' last offer of a 24% rollback as a basis for a new deal, only vitriol has been exchanged since.

"We're not going to be bringing any new proposals to the table, what we're trying to do is open the lines of communication," union vice-president Bill Guerin told Sun Media.

But don't expect the league's troika to quit the party line at this late stage.

"With people such as McCambridge, Linden, Daly and Hotchkiss in that room, they probably could come up with the right solutions -- if they choose to," the ex-GM said. "But who knows what the strategies will be?"

Through Tuesday, 655 of the season's 1,230 regular-season games have been lost. A 36-game schedule is feasible, but only if this meeting is used as a stepping stone to full talks.

"I'm guardedly optimistic about what could happen (today)," Maple Leafs' general manager John Ferguson said. "I think everyone understands that we're well into January now and if we want to play, something has to be done in the near term."

Philadelphia Flyers' player rep Robert Esche told Sun Media the players thought they owed it to the fans to attempt something.

"If the owners cancel the season, at least we can say we tried," Esche said. "Our union is trying to spearhead negotiations, get back to the table and salvage the season."

The league has never announced a drop-dead date. None of the four major professional sports in North America has ever gone beginning to end without a single game played.

The Stanley Cup is in danger of not being awarded for the first time since the Spanish flu wiped out the 1919 final. Even the Second World War couldn't stop the playoffs.


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