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An empty net after New Jersey Devils goalie Martin Brodeur lets in a goal by Los Angeles Kings' Drew Doughty (not pictured) during the first period in Game 2 of the NHL Stanley Cup hockey final in Newark, New Jersey, June 2, 2012. (RAY STUBBLEBINE/REUTERS)
An empty net after New Jersey Devils goalie Martin Brodeur lets in a goal by Los Angeles Kings' Drew Doughty (not pictured) during the first period in Game 2 of the NHL Stanley Cup hockey final in Newark, New Jersey, June 2, 2012. (RAY STUBBLEBINE/REUTERS)

Lockout

A ray of hope in NHL labour talks? Add to ...

Direct talks between NHL players and owners extended late into Tuesday night, negotiations described as substantive and positive, which serves as a first sign of progress in weeks and comes just ahead of a key meeting of the league’s board of governors on Wednesday.

The players-owners meeting – with 18 players and six owners – was convened at a New York hotel to add new voices to the debate, to revive stalled negotiations following failed mediation last week. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA head Donald Fehr were not in the room, and the meeting began shortly after 2 p.m. ET, stretching 51/2 hours before an hour-long dinner break, the players ordering food in, the owners departing.

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The biggest name in the room was Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who was flanked by the likes of Chicago’s Jonathan Toews, Phoenix’s Shane Doan and Buffalo’s Ryan Miller, as well as Calgary’s Michael Cammalleri. Lesser-known names, such as Winnipeg defenceman Ron Hainsey and Anaheim enforcer George Parros, were also there. The 18 faced a half-dozen owners, led by mainstays Jeremy Jacobs of Boston and Murray Edwards of Calgary, plus new faces, Larry Tanenbaum from Toronto, Ron Burkle from Pittsburgh, Jeff Vinik from Tampa Bay, and Mark Chipman from Winnipeg.

No official statements were issued but reports suggested the talks were productive. One report tagged a new addition to the owners’ roster, Burkle, as an important moderate voice, as had been forecast given he was known as a friend of labour in his business career. A Sports Business Journal reporter cited an unidentified player as saying, “Good meeting. I’m optimistic.”

Should Tuesday serve as a lasting platform to underpin a resolution, regular-season hockey could emerge fairly quickly, in 10 days or so after a deal is made. Bill Daly, NHL deputy commissioner, said “at least seven days for training camp” and “at least a couple days” to finalize a new collective agreement would be needed.

It was unclear late Tuesday whether the players and owners would continue to meet on Wednesday. The NHL governors will meet Wednesday morning in New York, and Bettman is expected to brief reporters in the early afternoon. The board meeting will be dominated by the labour talks but there isn’t a set framework for the gathering, according to Vancouver Canucks president and general manager Mike Gillis.

“We don’t have an agenda at this point,” Gillis told Vancouver radio station Team 1040 on Tuesday morning. Gillis was in New York with Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini and chief operating officer Victor de Bonis. Gillis expressed optimism for Tuesday’s meeting.

“The next couple days are important days but we’ve thought other days were important in the past,” Gillis said.

“You know, I’m hopeful, I think there’s going to be a new form of communication today.”

It was Day 80 of the lockout Tuesday and the scene played out in midtown Manhattan. The unorthodox meeting took place at the Westin hotel, around the corner from Times Square and 10 blocks directly north of Madison Square Garden, home of the New York Rangers. Bettman, while not in the room, was seen at the hotel, the spectre of the commissioner ever-present.

A little after 2 p.m. on the balmy December afternoon, the players entered a conference room on the third floor of the hotel, whose staff restricted access to the area. Outside the meeting room, a table full of refreshments – coffee, juices, water – stood untouched.

Hours passed. One floor up, in a room reserved for a possible press briefing, 40 or so journalists waited for someone to emerge, a phalanx of upward of a dozen television cameras at the ready. No one came. Reporters sat on the floor, traded theories about the talks, dashed across the street to retrieve coffee or snacks. Day turned to night.

The biggest news in 51/2 hours: that the owners had departed the hotel for their dinner.

If the seeming positive tone on Tuesday does not hold, and acrimony returns, the next major strategic play will probably be the players moving to decertify their union. The tactic in the past was considered unlikely to be used by players’ unions, but last year unions in both the NFL and NBA used the move to some success. In the NBA, after more than four months of go-nowhere talks, the players dissolved their union and less than two weeks later they had a deal, with owners making concessions.

Decertification allows players to sue owners under antitrust law and the tactic is likely to become a standard weapon in battles such as the NHL against its workers, according to labour expert Nathaniel Grow.

“Players will likely continue to dissolve their unions during future lockouts in order to gain negotiating leverage over ownership through the assertion of antitrust claims,” wrote Grow of the University of Georgia in a forthcoming paper on the NBA/NFL labour scraps in the Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment and Technology Law.

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