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National Hockey League Players Association Executive Director Donald Martin Fehr talks on his cell phone during league negotiations in New York December 4, 2012. NHL owners and players met face-to-face on Tuesday in an attempt to broker a deal to end their bitter dispute that threatens to wipe out the season. (Reuters)
National Hockey League Players Association Executive Director Donald Martin Fehr talks on his cell phone during league negotiations in New York December 4, 2012. NHL owners and players met face-to-face on Tuesday in an attempt to broker a deal to end their bitter dispute that threatens to wipe out the season. (Reuters)

Significant progress reported without Bettman and Fehr in the room Add to ...

The NHL and NHLPA are closing in on a deal after a long and bitter lockout, the stalemate seemingly broken by two long days of direct talks between players and owners without commissioner Gary Bettman or union head Don Fehr in the room.

On Wednesday, players and owners exchanged proposals and stayed in talks for almost nine hours before concluding after midnight, as they did on Tuesday when their eight-hour session ended around midnight. The Wednesday meetings were preceded by a midday gathering of the league’s board of governors, who were briefed on the situation – though not in detail – and discussed scenarios.

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Key issues to be settled are length of player contracts and length of the collective agreement, with owners gunning for a decade and players thinking half that. While the momentum in the player-owner talks was positive, the situation is “fluid,” several sources said.

Should a deal be done in the next three to five days, the governors are looking at a “50-something” game schedule, said a person who was at the board meeting. There was optimism but there was also a worry that a misstep in talks could be severe and lead to a lost season. Still, pessimism was fading on Wednesday.

“I think the dynamic has changed,” the source said of the player-owner talks. “It’s always good to get the two guys out of the room. I think there’s trust there now, instead of listening to Gary and Don talk, who are never going to make a deal.”

Toronto Maple Leafs minority owner Larry Tanenbaum expressed optimism. He is one of four owners who are new to the negotiating table, joining mainstays Jeremy Jacobs of Boston and Murray Edwards of Calgary.

The sessions are a small conclave with about 18 players. The group includes Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Penguins owner Ron Burkle, who have received credit for helping bring the sides together.

Tanenbaum said the sides were resolved to find a solution.

“There was very nice chemistry,” Tanenbaum said after the board meeting and before the players-owners meeting began. “We’re going to continue to talk up until we get a deal.” He added the NHL could be “back on the ice hopefully soon” and noted, “When you talk, you’re hopeful.”

Wednesday was the 81st day of the lockout and talks seem set to extend into Thursday. Through Wednesday, secrecy pervaded the negotiations. They took place at the Westin hotel, as they did on Tuesday, a location two blocks north of the offices of the NHL’s counsel, Proskauer Rose LLP, which played host to the midday board of governors meeting.

At the Westin, the owners left the meeting with players to caucus among themselves several times during the afternoon before returning to the bargaining table, the talks unfolding over the four hours. After a dinner break, the meetings briefly reconvened around 9 p.m. ET. The owners left the room after 15 minutes, and then soon returned.

In Vancouver, at a road hockey game organized for a TSN shoot, Canucks players avoided the topic. Defenceman Kevin Bieksa said he had received “a little of an update” from teammate Manny Malhotra, one of the players meeting in New York, but gave no comment. Ryan Kesler was the same. “I can’t talk about the [collective agreement],” Kesler said.

While Bettman and Fehr were not at the bargaining table on Tuesday or Wednesday, they were on the premises and, according to one expert, remain critical to any deal.

With the addition of new faces, “the room may be quieter and there may be more communication,” said Ronald Shapiro, a lawyer and sports agent who heads an institution devoted to negotiation training. But “in the final analysis, the players have placed their faith in Don Fehr and the owners have placed their faith in Gary Bettman.”

On Wednesday, the commissioner spoke only briefly.

After the board of governors meeting, Bettman said: “We are pleased with the process that is ongoing, and out of respect for that process I don’t have anything else to say.”

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