By IRA PODELL, Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — NHL owners and players were back in contact with each other Wednesday morning, but didn't hold a bargaining session because they didn't want to rush through a meeting before the league's board of governors got together.
Just hours after ending a long day of talks that produced the greatest sense for optimism since the lockout began three months ago, the sides spoke early Wednesday and planned to talk again later in the day. Instead of meeting with each other, each side held internal discussions.
The same negotiators on both sides were expected to participate in talks Wednesday. Bargaining stretched on Tuesday night until about midnight, and it was clear progress was made when deputy commissioner Bill Daly stood side by side with union special counsel Steve Fehr in a rare joint status report from both sides.
Negotiations lasted for nearly eight hours in a pair of sessions that included big and smaller groups. The sides hoped to meet Wednesday morning during a small window of time before the board of governors meeting at 11 a.m., but they decided put off negotiations until the afternoon. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman had planned to hold a news conference after the board meeting, but that might be postponed or canceled because of the ongoing talks.
The sides are trying to avoid another lost season. The NHL became the first North American professional sports league to cancel a full year because of a labor dispute back in 2005. The deal reached then was in place until this September, and the lockout was put into effect on Sept. 16 after that agreement expired.
The lockout reached its 81st day Wednesday.
While no details of what was discussed Tuesday were released, the addition of new owners to the negotiating process and a group of 18 players — without Bettman and union executive director Donald Fehr in the room — helped move the process forward and create a sense of hope that there will be a hockey season, and maybe soon.
The respective leaders were again on the same floor where talks were taking place but remained removed from the discussions.
"We had a long day," Steve Fehr said after Tuesday's talks. "We thought it was a constructive day. We had a good dialogue. In some ways I'd say it might be the best day we've had, which isn't too overly optimistic of a picture. There is still a lot of work to do and a lot to be done."
Daly echoed Fehr's comments, and spoke well of the talks.
"I appreciate the efforts of the players," Daly said. "Everybody is working hard. I think everybody wants to get a deal done, so that's encouraging. We look forward to hopefully making more progress."
That was the extent of the details revealed by the two sides, which could be another good sign that neither group wanted to say anything that could throw the discussions off the rails.
The large group of owners and players gathered to try to find some common ground as the search for a deal that would save the hockey season continued. Bettman and Donald Fehr were at the Manhattan hotel but stayed outside the meeting room.
Not much had worked up until Tuesday so the sides agreed to a different format to see if that would shake things up.
"I'm hoping we get to where we need to be," Bettman said before talks began Tuesday afternoon.
The dialogue continued throughout the day until the sides separated for a dinner break. The owners left while the players stayed to have a meal inside the hotel. The owners then returned to the hotel later Tuesday night for another round of talks with the union.
As more and more days pass by, the possibility that the entire hockey season will be lost grows. A lockout forced the cancellation of the 2004-05 season in February, and the belief is the NHL won't wait that long to call off this already-delayed and shortened campaign.