Still plenty of time to talk

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(AP) - The NHL and the NHL Players' Association can agree there's still more than enough time to reach a new labor deal even though the union has yet to submit a counteroffer with less than six weeks left before the current collective bargaining agreement expires.

``I don't think time's running out yet,'' Fehr said by phone Monday from Barcelona, where he met with about 40 NHL players. ``I still think if the parties are dedicated to it, there's sufficient time to reach an agreement.''

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly concurred.

``While time is getting shorter, we continue to feel there is sufficient time to reach a deal before Sept. 15,'' Daly wrote in an email to The Associated Press.

What's unclear is what happens after that deadline passes, and concerns that the NHL could impose a lockout, which is something Fehr doesn't favor.

``There's no law that says you have to lock out,'' Fehr said. ``If both parties are both really interested in trying to reach an agreement, and if we both really care what the people watching hockey games think, then we ought to be doing everything we can to avoid that eventuality. And that includes not short-circuiting the process.''

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Fehr has already proposed having talks continue beyond the deadline and having the season open without disruption under the current system.

Daly declined to discuss the NHL's plans if an agreement is not reached by mid-September.

``We will deal with the Players' Association on the issue of `what then?' if we don't (reach a deal),'' Daly wrote in an e-mail. ``Not prepared to debate that point publicly right now.''

Negotiations will resume at the league headquarters in New York on Tuesday. Fehr is expected to be back at the table by as early as Wednesday.

Fehr is in the midst of a brief swing across the Atlantic that took him to Moscow and Spain, where he provided updates on talks and recorded feedback from the NHL's European players.

The next step in talks will be for the union to present a counteroffer. Fehr said he's still doesn't have a timetable for that because the union is still poring over 76,000 pages of financial information the NHL provided last week. And Fehr said there's still more documents to come.

``You can't do it in 15 minutes,'' Fehr said. ``We have to satisfy ourselves that even if the production of the background financial information from the NHL is not complete, that we have enough of it to form some preliminary conclusions at least, and have an opportunity to go through it and work with it.''

What's clear is that Fehr and the players have expressed disappointment regarding the NHL's initial offer made last month. The NHL is proposing to cut players' share of revenues from 57 percent to 46. That translates into as much as a $450 million change in revenue.

The league's also seeking to restrict free agency on several fronts. That includes limiting length of contracts to five years (there are currently no limits in place); lengthening the time a player must wait to be eligible to become an unrestricted free agent from seven years to 10; and eliminating players' rights to salary arbitration.

Fehr said the reaction from players he met in Europe was similar to that of North American players.

``They reacted to the proposals that the owners made, and the approach that the owners have taken in much the same way that anybody would, faced with the kinds of demands that the owners have made,'' Fehr said. ``So it's no surprise there.''

One fear that's being raised is whether cuts in salary and changes to free agency might make lead to more players - particularly Europeans - to consider leaving the NHL for other leagues. The NHL's biggest competitor on an international scale is the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League.

Several players, including Jaromir Jagr, Sergei Fedorov and Jiri Hudler, have enjoyed stints in the KHL.
Fehr acknowledged that could be a concern.

``We want to be able to say without hesitation that the best 725 hockey players in the world are playing in the NHL,'' Fehr said. ``So, any time you have a circumstance in which it makes the choice to play in the NHL as compared to playing elsewhere more difficult or less likely that you're going to play in the NHL, that's a problem.''
Daly disagreed.

``We do not believe that any of the proposals we have made to this point,'' he wrote, ``would have any material impact on the league's ability to continue to attract the best players in the world.''

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