NEW YORK - The locked-out NHL players' association returned to the bargaining table Tuesday, and this time brought Sidney Crosby along.
On Day 52 of the lockout that has delayed the start of the hockey season and threatened to wipe it out completely, the league and the players sat down for the second round of negotiations in four days at an undisclosed site.
Not only were NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly and union special counsel Steve Fehr there, as they were for a marathon session by themselves Saturday. They were joined by Commissioner Gary Bettman, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, a handful of team owners, and 13 players including Crosby, who has been an active participant in the process.
"We're hopeful that we'll start bargaining and we'll continue bargaining until we find a way to make a deal," Donald Fehr said Tuesday before talks started. "Sometimes that goes in rather long sessions with short breaks and sometimes you take a few hours or half a day or a day to work on things before you come back together. I don't know which it will be.
"We certainly hope we'll be continuing to meet on a regular basis. I hope they do, too. I'm just not making any predictions."
Fehr's brother Steve met with Daly on Saturday in a secret location, and neither provided many details of what was discussed, but both agreed that the meeting was productive. That was proven when the sides agreed to quickly meet again Tuesday. There had been no negotiations since talks broke off on Oct. 18 until Saturday.
"The players' view has always been to keep negotiating until we find a way to get agreement and you sort of stay at it day by day, so it's very good to be getting back to the table," Donald Fehr said. "We hope that this time it produces more progress than we've seen in the past, and that we can find a way to make an agreement and to get the game back on the ice as soon as possible.
"We're hopeful that we'll start bargaining and we'll continue bargaining until we find a way to make a deal."
The NHL requested that the exact location for Tuesday's negotiations in New York be kept secret, and the players' association adhered. Time is becoming a bigger factor every day that passes without a deal. The lockout, which went into effect Sept. 16 after the previous collective bargaining agreement expired, has already forced the cancellation of 327 regular-season games - including the New Year's Day outdoor Winter Classic in Michigan.
Whether any of the games that have been called off through Nov. 30 can be rescheduled if an agreement is made soon hasn't been determined. But the NHL has already said that a full 82-game season won't be played.
Back in October, the players' association responded to an NHL offer with three of its own, but all of those were quickly dismissed by the league - leading to nearly three weeks of no face-to-face discussions. Daly and Steve Fehr kept in regular contact by phone and agreed to meet again last weekend.
The NHL has moved toward the players' side in the contentious issue of the "make-whole" provision, which involves the payment of player contracts that are already in effect and whose share of the economic pie that money will come from.
Other core economic issues - mainly the split of hockey-related revenue - along with contract lengths, arbitration and free agency will also need to be agreed upon before a deal can be reached.
The players' association accepted a salary cap in the previous CBA, which wasn't reached until after the entire 2004-05 season was canceled because of a lockout. The union doesn't want to absorb the majority of concessions this time after the NHL recorded record revenue that exceeded $3 billion last season.
"The issues the players are concerned about remain the same," Donald Fehr said. "The players haven't seen any need to go backward, given the history of the last negotiations and given the level of revenue increase since then." Player-contracting rights are very important to them.
"Before we have any agreement, both sides have to see everything on paper and make sure that they all understand it right. That's about all I can say about it at this stage. I don't want to prejudge or indicate that I have any particular impressions or expectations. That's what the meetings are for."