Progress being made in NHL talks

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:40 AM ET

Talks aimed at ending the eight-month National Hockey League lockout began their fourth consecutive week with no major hiccups.

A well-placed league source told the Ottawa Sun yesterday that discussions between the owners and players have progressed to the "closest they've ever been", but cautioned there's plenty of work to do. A carefully worded neutral message was e-mailed to the players by the union this week after both sides spoke of making progress late last week. It included an update from executive director Bob Goodenow, indicating the league will not move off its stance of a 54% link to revenues.

The two sides met for 6 1/2 hours in small groups yesterday in Chicago, minus league commissioner Gary Bettman and Goodenow, as lower level negotiators continued to delve into league financial and accounting issues. They'll meet again today in the same city.

Bettman has kept many of his owners in the dark on the progress of talks, but enough snippets have emerged to paint a more rosy picture of an imminent settlement than a month ago. A floating salary cap based on team by team revenues seems to have mutual appeal to the battling parties, but there remains strong disagreement regarding the definition of revenue. However, if the largest gap in the dispute can be bridged, a settlement becomes a matter of time.

"If they're talking about the colour of the car, it usually means they're close to buying the car," one hopeful NHL team executive said.

But another club exec vowed not to be suckered a second time by rumours that a deal was in the works.

"Ever since that stupid Saturday (Feb. 19, when a bid to resurrect the season was scuttled), I've learned not to believe anything until a deal is signed," the exec said. "Both sides are talking about things they should have discussed a year ago. Maybe that's progress, but we can't wait until September. We need a deal by early July so we can start the job of getting people to love this sport again."

One area the players might try to re-gain ground is unrestricted free agency. The two sides have been discussing moving the age for UFA's down to 30 from 31 next season and then back to 28 over the course of four years.

"The players have to look like they got something for missing the year," said the source.


Videos

Photos