Thursday's meeting in Toronto between the NHL and the NHL Players' Association wrapped up after nearly four hours with the two sides agreeing to meet again.

While there was little indication of whether any progress was made toward a new collective bargaining agreement – one that would end the current lockout – a league spokesman said negotiations would resume next Tuesday.

"We're going to spend the next few days reading the materials, making sure we understand what the union is proposing. And it's our intention to make a counter-proposal," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, adding he was handed a binder with 10 tabs from NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow.

The union's latest offer included a cut to existing player contracts of 24 per cent, significantly more than the five per cent rollback offered the last time they met on Sept. 9.

Goodenow estimated it would save team owners $270 million US in the first year and more than $1 billion US over six years.

"We believe this is a basis for an agreement," he said. "We made a proposal that's significant and substantial."

Missing from the offer was a link between player costs and league revenues – in other words, a salary cap, which is Bettman's solution.

"If they come back with a salary cap, there is no season," said Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson, a vice-president of the NHLPA's executive committee.

"It's fair to say the proposal touched more topics (than the Sept. 9 proposal)," Bettman added.

Bettman noted that a contract rollback is "an essential ingredient in implementing any new system and getting our economics back to a level ... that we can afford. So that was a significant element (of Thursday's proposal) but, as I said, it's a one-time element and we really have to focus on the systemic issues."

Goodenow admitted the new package included such changes as the alteration of entry-level salaries and arbitration.

Among the NHLPA's other concessions, the payroll-tax clause was also revised, but not to the degree of the existing salary rollback.

The tax would start at 20 cents per dollar at payrolls over $45 million US and rise to 50 cents on the dollar over $50 million US and 60 cents on the dollar over $60 million US.

Following Thursday's session, Bettman reiterated comments he made recently in Edmonton that he did not believe in a luxury tax.

"I don't think it works, in terms of getting rid of disparities or letting teams retain their playing talent," he said. "We still believe the right way to go systematically is a partnership between the league and the players where there is a definable relationship between revenues and expenses.

"It's something we'll look at and how it may apply in the context of what has been proposed."

Other highlights of the union's proposal:

  • changes to the entry-level system that would scale back the rookie cap to $850,000 from $1.2 million last season, as well as bring bonuses down. The union estimates the changes would save owners $345 million over six years;

  • changes to qualifying offers for restricted free agents which the union says would save owners $285 million over three years, $95 million alone in 2005;

  • allow clubs for the first time ever to bring players (likely those who are overpaid) to salary arbitration in order to have his pay reduced; teams could only do it once a year and players could only have it done to them once in their careers;

  • revenue sharing: transferring money collected from payroll tax to lower-revenue clubs;

  • joint player-club committees: having players and owners together discuss ways to improve the game, as well as share in marketing;

  • players want the league to commit to participation in 2006 and 2010 Winter Olympics.

    Bettman contends that the NHL needs "cost certainty" because 20 teams operate in the red and the league has lost $1.8 billion US over the life of the last CBA. He also maintains that 75 per cent of league revenues go to covering player costs. Those figures are in dispute with the NHLPA.

    "My hope is that this has been a serious attempt (to negotiate), that we can respond to in a serious way," said Bettman. "The pluses of (Thursday) had to do with the fact the union recognized that the economics are out of sync and that there is a willingness to do a rollback to get them in sync.

    "I think that's important, particularly if you're going to implement a new system."

    As the lockout entered its 85th day and with 372 of this season's 1,230 games lost, the meeting between the two sides was viewed as the last chance to save the NHL season.

    Yet when asked if there was a drop-dead date to cancel the 2004-05 NHL campaign, Bettman replied: "It's not a timeline that we're working under. It's about making the right deal for the long-term health of this game.

    "If we cannot have a season because the deal came too late, then we'll get ready for the new era when next season starts."

    with files from CP Online