NHL, union talk again _ but not about money

IRA PODELL, AP Sports Writer

NEW YORK -- Manny Malhotra is spending his days in the boardroom instead of on the ice in North America or Europe.

The Vancouver Canucks forward is craving the normalcy of his hockey life, but these days he finds himself in a suit and getting familiar hellos from hotel staffs and airport employees as he travels to and from New York for negotiations.

This wasn't the opening day he wanted, but it also wasn't unexpected.

Malhotra joined the negotiating team of the NHL Players' Association on Thursday for the second straight day of bargaining at the league office. The topics at hand again centered on secondary issues such as drug testing, contracts and other legal things, instead of talks about the core economics of the sport that is fueling the monthlong lockout.

"It's at a crawl at this point, but we knew that coming in that it was going to be long," Malhotra said. "We have to have patience and understanding that there is no point rushing into a situation that wouldn't benefit us in some way."

Malhotra didn't seek a job to play in Europe because he now has a young son and didn't want to leave his family. So he is taking part in talks he hopes will quickly get him back on the ice.

"If you just want to bury your head and just go to the rink and play hockey and do nothing else, you're missing a world of the behind the scenes of what really goes into a CBA, what goes into the makeup of the league, how the league operates," he said. "It's an incredible learning experience."

Four games were supposed to mark the opening of the regular season on Thursday night, but instead negotiations ended unfulfilled and with no immediate plans for the sides to get together again.

"We're creatures of habit," Malhotra said. "We're used to doing things at certain times, and right now would be time to be playing again. Guys are frustrated with the monotony of just going to the rink, or working out and still doing those things that we're used to doing in the summertime.

"The frustration sets in. Guys want to be doing what we love to do. It's been that way since we missed the first day of camp."

The league and the union did little to close the gap during the 26th day of the lockout. There won't be any negotiations on Friday, and the likelihood of any hockey being played in October is quickly fading.

"Until we're really tackling the major issues, I'm not sure there is a real-time urgency on these other issues," NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said. "Let's take the time, let's redo proposals on the basis of the two days of discussion. When we have that done, and it makes sense to meet, I am sure we'll meet.

"We didn't leave today's meeting saying, `This is ridiculous. There is no reason to continue meeting on any level.' None of our discussions have led to that result, and I don't expect them to at any time in the near future."

After five hours of talks at the league office on Wednesday, the sides got back together for nearly as long _ in two separate sessions _ on Thursday. Union head Donald Fehr stayed away, and wasn't in contact with Commissioner Gary Bettman.

Some progress was made on a drug testing plan, and the sides also dealt with contract issues such as term length and player assignments that still need to be worked on. Other miscellaneous legal issues were also discussed, again with some disagreements.

"There are still a few things to work out," NHLPA special counsel Steve Fehr said. "That is not the core issue, obviously. If we had everything else settled, we could go back to work and solve the remaining issues in six hours if we had to."

Last week, the NHL canceled _ at least temporarily _ 82 games from Thursday through Oct. 24.

Daly estimated the NHL lost $100 million from the cancellation of the entire preseason and would be out another $140 million to $150 million with the regular-season losses. He wouldn't speculate when more games would be trimmed from the schedule or how long it would take to get the league up and running if a deal is finally reached.

"It's a disappointment. There is no way around that," Daly said. "I certainly hoped and would have expected we would be in a different place today. I would've expected we would've had an agreement, I would've expected we would have been dropping the puck.

"In retrospect, I look back at it, and while we were all hopeful during the course of the summer that there was plenty of time to get a deal done, maybe the fault lies in the fact that we didn't start negotiations until June 29. That goes back to the level of urgency maybe with the players' association and not being prepared to have those discussions."

The NHL still says it is waiting for a new proposal from the union, with the owners adamant players accept a significant drop from the 57 percent of revenue they received under the salary cap in the last contract. The players don't want what they consider massive cuts at a time when the overall revenue pot reached record numbers ($3.3 billion) last year.

"For most of the last few weeks, unless it was on their terms, unless we've had a proposal they don't seem very interested in discussing the core economics," Steve Fehr said. "Let's keep in mind that they are the ones who started this with a request for a 24 percent rollback, which they've inched back a little, in addition to putting proposals on the table that would severely limit and curtail player contracting rights which had the predictable result of provoking players.

"It is further compounded by their strategy of first lock out and then see what happens. That is why we are in this mess today."

Daly disagreed.

"We've been down that road a couple of times and it continues to be our belief the union has made one meaningful proposal in this entire process _ that was on Aug. 14. Now they have made it three times, and they are suggesting that it is three different proposals. It wasn't," he said. "Bottom line is it is difficult to understand why we should make a third proposal in their direction.

"At some point we've got to see a willingness from the players' association to compromise because they haven't shown any willingness to compromise."