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NHL talks keep going and going and going

NEW YORK, N.Y. - Once Scot L. Beckenbaugh got the NHL and NHL Players' Association back to the bargaining table, they didn't want to leave.

The U.S. federal mediator convinced the parties to resume face-to-face discussions on Saturday afternoon and the talks ended up continuing well into Sunday morning. In fact, they were still going strong at 5 a.m. ET — roughly 16 hours after the session began at a midtown Manhattan hotel.

Not only was it the latest and longest a meeting had run during these negotiations, it came with some hope that a season-saving deal was in the offing. However, there was still clearly work to be done.

"(There's been) lots of meetings, some progress," deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in an email midway through the session. "The parties are both working hard to get things resolved."

Beckenbaugh deserved some credit for keeping the talks on track. It was no small feat given some of the bad feelings that emerged earlier in the week, but the mediator managed to cool things off during a series of independent meetings with the two sides on Friday.

That helped set the stage for Saturday, not to mention early Sunday morning.

The sides have moved closer to one another with a series of proposals since Dec. 27, but were still in need of agreement in a number of key areas: The salary cap for next season, the length of player contracts, salary variance, the length of the CBA and the players' pension plan among them.

While reports started to leak out on Saturday night that tentative deals had been reached in some of those areas, a source close to the talks cautioned that nothing would be set in stone until the entire document was agreed to. There was no better evidence to support that view than the pension issue, which the sides felt they had an understanding on last month only to discover recently there was more work to do.

Meantime, the players are believed to have restored their executive board's authority to declare a "disclaimer of interest" in a ballot that wrapped up Saturday night. The first such vote passed overwhelming last month and the same result was expected again, although the NHLPA elected not to disclose the results.

The "disclaimer of interest" gives the 30-member committee the ability to dissolve the union, which would open the door for antitrust lawsuits and bring even more uncertainty to the bargaining process. However, it was an option the NHLPA was only believed to be interested in pursuing if talks hit another snag.

Beckenbaugh spent two days with the NHL and NHLPA in November and another two days in December. He has also been present for talks all week and witnessed first-hand as the process was briefly halted after the NHLPA let the first "disclaimer of interest" deadline pass just before midnight on Wednesday night.

At that point, negotiations stalled and the sides had to spend Thursday morning in a small group meeting working through an issue relating to penalties for teams failing to properly report hockey-related revenue. The union was angered by a change to the language from the expired CBA, which was eventually ironed out but led to more mistrust at the bargaining table.

That's when the deputy director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service stepped in, becoming familiar with the three-block walk between the league office and NHLPA's hotel during almost 13 hours of meetings on Friday.

Beckenbaugh, who was also part of talks during the NHL's 2004-05 lockout, went one step further by getting them back in the same room a day later.

The sides are seeking to reach an agreement that would allow training camps to open by Jan. 12 and salvage a shortened 48-game season. There was also said to be an outside possibility they could squeeze in a couple more than that if a deal was reached soon — an interesting proposition both for players, who are losing almost US$30,000 on average per game, and owners who are losing more.

The lockout hit its 112th day on Saturday, making it the second longest labour dispute in NHL history. It remains the only North American sports league to see an entire season cancelled due to a lockout.

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