NHL lockout: Talks go on hold; key issues linger

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If nothing else, the NHL made one concession Friday.

Commissioner Gary Bettman said he would remain available all weekend and beyond to resume talks with the NHL Players' Association, even if it means staying in New York and skipping the annual Hall of Fame festivities Monday.

"Whatever it takes," Bettman said.

Beyond that, it's difficult to discern much meaningful progress after four days in a row of hours-long meetings between the league and the union. Ideas and offers have been exchanged, but it does not appear an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement and an end to the lockout are close.

The key issues remain revenue sharing and a way for players' contracts to be honored in full despite their share of revenues dropping from 57 percent under the expired CBA to a 50-50 split with the owners.

NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr said he didn't believe the sides are as far apart as the league believes on the latter issue, referred to as the "make whole" concept.

Bettman said the NHL is awaiting word from the NHLPA on a resumption of talks. The union has "some things to consider," said Fehr, adding that it will hold internal meetings this morning.

For some, the one bright note is that the sides are meeting.

"We don't agree on everything, but it feels like we're making progress," Penguins forward and NHLPA representative Craig Adams said after skating with nine teammates at Southpointe.

Adams has consistently characterized himself as an optimist, and he remains convinced that an agreement to end the lockout can be reached.

"We haven't gotten a deal done yet, so I don't want to promise anything," said Adams, who attended the Tuesday meetings. "I feel progress is being made. The discussions that I have been at or heard about have been good. The tone is good."

Adams went through a lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season. Players with a lot less experience are watching, waiting and willing to learn as they go.

Penguins center Joe Vitale, who has just one full NHL season on his resume, is among the latter group.

"It's not something where I'm timid," Vitale said. "I think it's more that I'm not as educated about it as these guys are. I'm still learning what's going on. You put the trust in the older guys, the guys who have been around for a while."

Vitale has wavered between optimism and pessimism. After very little face-to-face contact between the league and players over the first seven weeks of the lockout, talks have dominated the past week -- but haven't produced huge gains.

"At first, I was optimistic," Vitale said. "But, then you see the facts and the numbers crunched and see that we are kind of far apart. Then you get a little down. But the fact that there's dialogue still there is good."

According to a memo players received Thursday night from Fehr, the players this week have made proposals for "a new pension plan, revenue sharing, the players' share and salary cap issues, and the owners' 'make whole' concept."

The NHL previously wanted players to be paid back in deferred salary under its "make whole" proposal. At one point this week, the union offered to keep contracts intact and use a phase-in to get them down to around 50 percent by the third year of a new CBA.

Fehr wrote that union members "were told that the owners want an 'immediate reset' to 50/50 [which would significantly reduce the salary cap], and that their proposals to restrict crucial individual contracting rights must be agreed to. As you know, these include -- among other things --losing a year of salary arbitration eligibility, allowing the team to file for salary arbitration in any year that the player can file, extending [unrestricted free-agency] eligibility to age 28 or eight seasons, limiting contracts to five years, and permitting only 5 percent year-to-year variability in player contracts. Individually each is bad for players; taken together they would significantly reduce a player's bargaining power and give the owner much more leverage over a player for most if not all of his career."

The memo did not include information about a reported counter-offer from the NHL, which led to reports that the league is upset with Fehr for perhaps withholding information from the players he represents. Players, though, have consistently praised Fehr for keeping them up to date.

NOTES -- The Penguins at Southpointe had a large enough group -- nine skaters plus a ringer -- to have a five-on-five scrimmage for the first time in weeks. Besides Adams and Vitale, the participants from the club were defenseman Matt Niskanen and Ben Lovejoy; forwards Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz, Matt Cooke, Tyler Kennedy and Sidney Crosby; and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Crosby centered a line with Kunitz and Dupuis.

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For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Shelly Anderson: shanderson@post-gazette.com and Twitter @pgshelly.


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