NHL thinking ahead

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:15 AM ET

National Hockey League owners aren't likely to wait for the outcome of new talks with the players before proceeding with their own plans for 2005-06.

Though the second meeting in less than a week is scheduled today, likely in New York, executives such as Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. president Richard Peddie says his team has begun gearing up for a new season, no matter who ends up wearing blue and white in October.

"Naturally, I'd like to tell you we have a deal (with the union) and we'd like to start playing now," Peddie said yesterday. "But we have to begin the job of marketing and selling our Leafs. We're working on the premise that there will be Leaf hockey and players with Leafs' sweaters on."

Without using the contentious term 'replacement players,' the NHL said at its most recent board of governors meeting that it planned to operate business as usual next season. A Rogers Sportsnet report yesterday said another board meeting is scheduled for April 20, at which time it's likely the replacement player plan would be outlined by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

Sportsnet also said a second memo has been circulated to the 30 teams, telling them the window to negotiate a new deal is only two weeks before the league takes steps to have the collective bargaining process declared at an impasse.

"We're getting regular correspondence from the NHL," Peddie said when asked about the Sportsnet report. "I don't want to say we're down to two weeks, but we are working on the premise of a season."

One NHL executive told Sportsnet that today's meeting is "merely a step toward impasse."

The owners could press for impasse if they feel the union is not responding to new initiatives, though that ruling can be challenged by the union to the National Labour Relations Board in the U.S.

Opinion is divided as to how successful the players would be, but it's expected that labour officials of the four Canadian provinces with NHL teams will not rule on the validity of replacements until the NLRB makes its decision.

Asked for a comment yesterday on the two-week deadline story, the NHL Players Association said it would not react to an unsubstantiated report.

BIG GUNS

Bob Goodenow, the union's executive director, is expected at today's meeting, along with Bettman and the respective top lieutenants.

Last week's talks in Toronto lasted just 90 minutes and possibly were designed to set up the ground rules for more extensive discussions today. There is some speculation an offer of some kind might be put forward by one of the parties.

Peddie confirmed himself, MLSEL chairman Larry Tanenbaum and Leafs general manager John Ferguson will attend the April 20 meeting.


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