Locked-out players, NHL hopeful talks will soon resume

Kevin Westgarth and Shawn Horcoff, playing in a charity game this weekend, say progress was being made recently in NHL talks, which could resume this coming week, according to Bill Daly.
Bill Daly, seen addressing media on Dec. 5, a day before talks broke down in dramatic fashion. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Thanks to a charity game, three NHL players — Kevin Westgarth, Shawn Horcoff and Jamal Mayers — got a chance to get more comfortable on the ice than they were earlier in the week.

They were playing hockey in a Canadian rink Saturday night, two days after being part of the union negotiating team in a New York hotel where labor talks with the league fell apart.

"I'm happy to be in a situation to do it, but I'd rather be on the ice," said Westgarth, a Los Angeles Kings forward. "That's where I want to be."

Daly says talks possible for this week

The NHL and the locked-out players' association are talking again, and a return to the bargaining table could happen soon.

After a few days to cool off following an epic collapse in negotiations, the league and the union have been in touch with each other in an attempt to restart conversations that could save the hockey season.

"Trying to set up something for this week, but nothing finalized yet," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly wrote Sunday in an email to The Associated Press.

Negotiations broke down Thursday night after three straight days of talks at a New York hotel. Moments after players' association executive director Donald Fehr said he believed the sides were closing in on a deal to end the lockout, he was back at the podium to announce the NHL had rejected the union's latest offer.

Commissioner Gary Bettman followed him and angrily stated that the sides weren't close, and added he didn't know why Fehr thought they were.

The tone has changed a bit since then. Whether it has shifted far enough for the sides to come to an agreement soon remains to be seen.

On Friday, Daly said he was at a loss how to get the bargaining process back on track.

"I have no reason, nor any intention, of reaching out to the union right now," Daly said in an email to the AP. "I have no new ideas. Maybe they do. We are happy to listen."

All games have been cancelled through Friday, and more games will surely be wiped off the schedule soon. Bettman said Thursday that he won't allow a season to be played that contains fewer than 48 games per team — the length of the season that was played after a lockout ended in January 1995.

Fehr repeated on Saturday his feeling that the sides aren't all that far apart.

"My comments from a couple of days ago stand on their own. I think we were very close," Fehr told reporters after addressing a Canadian Auto Workers council meeting.

The Associated Press

Westgarth was one of 36 locked-out players in an event at the WFCU Centre — less than 10 miles from Joe Louis Arena, home of the Detroit Red Wings — that raised money for charity and gave the idle pros an opportunity to do what they do best.

The game was sloppy and choppy early, understandably so because the lockout has lasted nearly three months, before some sharp passes and one-timers put their talent on display for about 4,500 fans.

"We all want to be playing real games," said Detroit Red Wings forward Dan Cleary, one of the players who organized the event.

"If we're not playing, we might as well do something good with our time, try to give back to the fans, to charities."

Cleary said a similar event is planned for Dec. 19 in Toronto.

With NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman insisting the two sides are still very far apart, there's a good chance more games will be cancelled soon.

The lockout has already wiped out all games through Dec. 14 along with the Winter Classic on New Year's Day at Michigan Stadium and the All-Star game on Jan. 27 in Ohio.

"We are running out of time," said Horcoff, an Edmonton Oilers forward. "I hope after a couple days of relaxing, cooler heads prevail and we get back it."

Mayers said the owners are the ones in control of when talks resume.

"It was the NHL that got up and left and pulled everything from the table," the Chicago Blackhawks forward said. "Certainly there will come a time in the next few days or the next week, they'll start to talk again. My hope is that the owners realize that we really are that close."

The two sides are apart on at least two key issues.

The NHL wants to limit player contracts to five years, seven if the player re-signs with a team, without a huge difference in what a player makes from year to year.

The union countered with an offer to make the maximum length of a deal for any player eight years.

Mayers tried to explain why the league's offer didn't work for the union.

"What would happen is, guys like Sidney Crosby would end up taking 20 percent of whatever the cap would be — for the entire term for five or seven years — and there would be a couple other guys on the team that would do that, then it would completely crush the middle- and lower-tier players," Mayers said.

"There would be no middle guy because there would be no money left. If Sid is making $12 [million US] and [Evgeni] Malkin is making that and then you have [Kris] Letang and [Marc-Andre] Fleury coming up, how would they fit everybody in?"

Another major obstacle to a deal is agreeing on how long the next collective bargaining agreement should last.

The NHL wants the new CBA to last for 10 years, with a mutual opt-out option after eight years. The union countered with an offer to make it an eight-year deal with an out after six years.

"I don't have to be a mathematician to figure out that there's a deal there to be made," Mayers said. "It's not a huge discrepancy."