New hope for new year in NHL labor situation?

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The year is new.

The situation in the NHL is not.

Talks to forge a collective bargaining agreement to end the dispute that has shut down the league since mid-September resumed Monday in New York, but 2013 begins with the league's players still locked out.

And with no guarantee they will return to work this winter.

Officials of the league and NHL Players' Association met for about three hours Monday, primarily to answer questions the NHL people had about a counteroffer the union submitted at the start of the session.

How that proposal differed from one that the league put forth Thursday isn't known.

The NHL negotiators planned to evaluate the NHLPA offer Monday night, then respond to it when the sides get together again today.

"Their response was a comprehensive one," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters at the meeting site. "We're in the process of reviewing."

He also identified Jan. 11 as the deadline for getting a deal. Previously, the league had made it known that play would have to start no later than Jan. 19 in order to get in a 48-game season, the minimum the NHL is willing to accept.

NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr told the media there was "not a lot to say" about what transpired Monday.

The meeting today will take place against the backdrop of a looming deadline, as the NHLPA has until Wednesday to file the disclaimer of interest authorized by its members last month.

That would entail notifying the league that it no longer represents the players, with the goal of having the lockout declared illegal and players being able to take antitrust legal action on an individual basis.

Fehr, predictably, declined to divulge whether the NHLPA is planning to take that step.

The meeting Monday stemmed from the offer the league submitted Thursday in an effort to jump-start the talks.

That move caught many who have observed - or even been part of - the negotiations off-guard. One of them was Penguins center Sidney Crosby, who allowed that he was "a little bit surprised" when it happened.

"It's something I'm sure they had some time to think about and I'm glad there are actual negotiations going on," he said.

Crosby did not participate in the discussions Monday, but said that if nothing else, what the league put on the table should provide the basis for talks that could nudge the parties closer to a settlement.

"At this point, any dialogue or any proposal is a step in the right direction," he said. "I think there are some negotiations that still need to take place, but I think it's something to build off."

Crosby was one of seven Penguins to participate in a player-organized workout Monday at Southpointe, and is expected to be there for another session today.

The turnout for those practices has been lower than usual for the past few weeks, but Crosby suggested that attendance figures will increase as the deadline for saving the season gets closer.

"I'm sure guys are going to come and make sure that whatever happens, if there is a deal reached, they're ready," he said. "If not, then they're here and ready to move on or do what they need to do."

The consensus is that if there is an agreement, teams will need at least seven days of training camp to adequately prepare for the games that follow.

Considering that all concerned likely will want to start playing at the earliest practical date, the chances of clubs having much more than a week seem remote, at best.

Still, Crosby said he would like to have two or three exhibition games to prepare for the ones that count, and to reduce the chances of players being injured because they don't have an opportunity to get ready for the rigors of a compressed schedule.

"When you're playing your team's system against an actual opponent, not your own teammates, it's a little different," he said. "You do get something from that.

"[Whether exhibition games are played] is something that would have to be negotiated and talked through with everyone. You have to find that balance of making sure you're ready. Do you possibly miss other games [in the regular season] because you're not prepared?"

The finer points of training camp and preseason games are not front-burner issues in the CBA talks just yet. If that changes, there's a pretty good chance a slice of the 2012-13 season will be saved.

Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@post-gazette.com and Twitter: @MolinariPG.

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