Silence is a beautiful thing

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:05 AM ET

Is there cause for optimism? Were any of the key issues hammered out? Is there a chance for a settlement?

All these issues were neatly side-stepped by those who took part in yesterday's second-level meeting of principals in the National Hockey League's labour war.

This stoic tight-lipped approach doesn't come as any great surprise. NHL Players' Association president Trevor Linden, who initiated the meeting, had picked a locale where he could get away from the hockey media -- and what better place than Chicago where the Blackhawks play in near-anonymity?

But the media found him anyway, assuming that the hotel in O'Hare Airport which has been the site of so many hockey negotiation sessions -- going back to the merger of the World Hockey Association and the NHL during the 1970s -- would be a likely place to gather.

Even so, when Linden and his NHL counterpart Harley Hotchkiss of the Calgary Flames, emerged to find a battery of Canadian-network TV cameras staring them in the face, their comments were perfunctory at best.

But one point was very revealing. The two sides intend to meet again.

That in itself has to be cause for optimism. You don't spend five hours in a room with the other side, determine that it was a complete waste of time, and then decide to do it again.

There is a good reason for Hotchkiss and Linden to be furtive. A lot of behind-the-scenes pressure is being brought to bear on these guys but, for obvious reasons, neither wants to admit it.

Rather than hold a full-scale news conference and slip up somewhere, it's better to be discreet, say next to nothing and beat a hasty retreat.

This should not be taken as an implication that either side is about to run up the white flag. On both sides, a solid majority is in favour of the course of action that has been followed thus far.

But agents, if not players, are pressing hard for some sort of negotiated settlement to the impasse. The players are without salaries and have to meet the usual domestic expenses out of their savings.

Agents are in the same boat, but their problems go a step further. They also have to pay office rent, and they have to sign the salary cheques for their staffers -- not to mention meeting the costs of business expenses such as phones, office supplies and travel.

These agents make a living off negotiation and although they're not urging their clients to capitulate, they're expressing the desire for a settlement.

On the other front, certain franchises are screaming for a settlement because they were making bags of money under the old deal. Under a new arrangement, which presumably would be built around the 24% salary rollback the players have offered, profits could be enormous.

The so-called Canadian small-market teams could no longer claim they'd lose money with the dollar at its current level.

So there are signs, faint perhaps but signs nonetheless, that there could be a slight softening of stances on both sides.

Linden called the meeting because he felt that the players' December offer was an excellent one and he couldn't understand why the governors would reject it out of hand, sit still for more than a month and make no counteroffer.

Perhaps in those five hours yesterday, Hotchkiss gave him the answer -- if there is one.


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