Originally created 03/02/05

NHL officials, players hold meetings



NEW YORK - The NHL board of governors made two things quite clear Tuesday: there will be hockey in the fall and commissioner Gary Bettman will still be in charge.

On a day when players regrouped in Toronto and executives from all 30 teams gathered in New York, both sides issued stern declarations that there is unity in the ranks.

Bettman said he plans to invite the players' association back to the bargaining table soon, but wouldn't reveal if he will present a new proposal.

If a deal can't be reached through negotiation, the league plans to explore all options - including using replacement players next season.

"We discussed a variety of options and I don't want to focus on any one because it would seriously be misconstrued and be potentially inflammatory," Bettman said. "The fact is there are lots of options.

"We discussed everything. But again, everybody's first and primary focus is to make a deal with the union as quickly as possible."

There might be some differences in opinion among the players and the owners, but no cracks in the foundation even though the NHL recently became the first major North American sports league to lose an entire season to a labor dispute.

"There is no split whatsoever," New Jersey Devils president Lou Lamoriello said. "There is total unanimity and there has been since Day One. I don't see that ever changing."

More than 150 of the NHL's 700-plus players met with union leadership, while the governors gathered at the same hotel where Bettman imposed the lockout in September and wiped out the entire season two weeks ago.

At one point, only one executive from each team remained in the meeting room for an exclusive session. It was then that Bettman received total support from all the clubs.

"I can tell you we're united," Los Angeles Kings president Tim Lieweke said. "The 30 owners, I've never seen this group so solid behind the commissioner and behind the vision of where we need to go as a league.

"He speaks on our behalf and anyone that thinks he's in trouble is wrong. Anyone that thinks there is division within the owners is wrong. We are very united. We have one voice, it's Gary."

The players were also in line behind union executive director Bob Goodenow.

"The so-called splinter faction in the union that is going a different direction has been drummed up by a lot of media members and people hoping a deal gets done," St. Louis defenseman Chris Pronger said. "I can unequivocally say everyone is on board and understands the issues better."

Both meetings served to provide updates on what happened in the failed negotiations the past 5½ months. Union leaders scheduled another meeting for Wednesday in Toronto with player agents.

The players' meeting lasted about three hours on Tuesday after beginning a night earlier with a dinner.

The board of governors met for five hours - an hour devoted just to legal issues.

It was the first gathering of the board since the start of the lockout. Alternate governors, comprised of general managers and other executives, were also present in Manhattan.

Wayne Gretzky, the managing partner of the Phoenix Coyotes, was absent because he was with his ill mother in Brantford, Ontario.

Gretzky and Pittsburgh Penguins player-owner Mario Lemieux took part in the last bargaining session with the union on Feb. 19 - three days after the season was wiped out - is an effort to uncancel the season. But they left disappointed that a deal wasn't in place.

On Tuesday, debate was conducted between hard-line owners who want a salary cap with a link between league revenues and player costs, and those who just want a reasonable deal in place that would allow for the NHL to get back on the ice next season.

"We plan to play a season no matter how that happens," Edmonton Oilers chairman Cal Nichols said.

In the final week before the season was canceled, owners agreed to drop their demand for linkage. In return, the union agreed to accept a salary cap, but the sides never agreed on an acceptable number.

There is no telling when players and owners will sit down at the bargaining table again. The NHL would like to reach an agreement in time for the draft to be held in June.

The union doesn't have much incentive to rush back into negotiations because the players aren't due to be paid again until October, when next season is slated to start.

"It's important for both sides to take a little time to reassess," said Vancouver center Trevor Linden, the players' association president. "Obviously, the process at this point hasn't worked and we'll step back and have a look back at how we can move this thing forward.

"To get right back at it and start firing proposals, I'm not sure that's the right way to do it. To reflect, to decide which way to go, I think is important. At the appropriate time, there'll be discussion and we'll get back to it."