After watching negotiations go off the rails in a very public setting last week, the NHL and NHL Players' Association are heading back underground.

And they've invited some company.

The sides are set to resume talks at an undisclosed location Wednesday with U.S. federal mediators Scot L. Beckenbaugh and John Sweeney rejoining the process. Those men first met with league and union leaders Nov. 27 and 28 before deciding they couldn't help negotiations along.

The NHLPA continued to push for mediation when players and owners gathered in New York last week and the NHL eventually agreed. However, deputy commissioner Bill Daly acknowledged Tuesday that he would carry "no expectations" into the next session.

Some traction was made during the last round of negotiations when owners and players met directly — commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr were both kept out of the room — although talks broke down in spectacular fashion shortly after Fehr met reporters on Thursday night and announced that agreements had been reached on most of the main issues.

Even though the NHL subsequently rejected the union's offer and pulled its own off the table, the NHLPA leader stuck by his comments when he spoke to the Canadian Auto Workers in Toronto over the weekend.

"My comments from a couple of days ago stand on their own," Fehr said Saturday. "I think we were very close."

Bridging the gap

The biggest change since the sides last met with mediators is the NHL's willingness to increase the amount of deferred make-whole payments to US$300 million — a jump of $89 million from what had previously been on the table. The league also dropped proposed changes to rules governing unrestricted free agency, arbitration and entry-level contracts while the NHLPA began entertaining the introduction of term limits on deals and increasing the overall length of the CBA.

In short, they moved closer together during three up-and-down days of negotiations and the mediators will rejoin the process at a more progressed stage than they left it.

Non-binding mediation has been used by the NFL and NBA during recent work stoppages without success. The Washington-based Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service was also involved during the lockout that cancelled the 2004-05 NHL season, with Beckenbaugh attending sessions back then as well.

As recently as last week, Bettman indicated that he didn't think mediators would be able to help bridge the gap in negotiations and questioned why the union continued to ask for their presence after claiming a deal was at hand.

"We're not interested in mediation," Bettman said Thursday. "We went through it a week and a half ago. It was of no value because of the position of the parties. When the mediators weren't available this week, we did what we felt was our own informal mediation in terms of trying to move the process forward, giving where we could.

"It's an interesting question, because if we were so close [to a deal] why would we need mediation?"

From the league's point of view, three main issues remain in negotiations: the length of the CBA, rules governing term limits on contracts and the transition rules to help teams get under the salary cap.

There are also a handful of secondary issues that have yet to be agreed upon, including the continued participation of NHLers in the Olympics, the international calendar and rules governing drug testing.

The lockout hit Day 87 on Tuesday and has already resulted in the cancellation of 526 regular-season games through Dec. 30, plus the Winter Classic and all-star game. With the window to save the season narrowing, there was hope the two sides might be in a position to continue working through their differences.

"It's good they're talking and hopefully something good comes out of it," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Tuesday.