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NHL Hopes Up as Talks Resume : Hockey: Possible entry-level salary structure and arbitration agreement create optimism that lockout may end.


Optimism surged Wednesday that the NHL lockout might be near an end, fueled by reports that players are willing to adopt an entry-level salary structure and move toward the owners' position on limiting salary arbitration.

Today's negotiations in Buffalo, N.Y., will largely determine whether those are false hopes or steppingstones toward resolving the 41-day-old stoppage and starting the season by early or mid-December.

A management source said that if negotiators make significant progress today, they will meet throughout the weekend in hopes of producing an agreement next week. If they don't have a comprehensive accord but agree on key issues, owners would consider accepting the no-strike pledge previously offered by players as long as players agree to a moratorium on renegotiating contracts or contract extensions until a deal is signed.

However, if they can't build on the atmosphere of compromise created Monday, there's little hope a meaningful season will be played, the source said.

"There's been enough pain extracted so a deal is strikeable," said one club executive. "But if Bob (Goodenow, head of the players' association) waits until the last minute to make what he thinks will be a better deal, more hawks will be lining up against him.

"I really believe he's got a unique opportunity to make a deal right now. But if he puts it off, the doves are going to grow talons."

In exchange for players' compromises, the NHL would restore guaranteed contracts and the other economic givebacks it imposed at the start of training camp. If pushed, it would drop the payroll levy it proposed as a means of subsidizing small-market clubs. The union has opposed the levy, contending the measure--which peaked at 122%--would inhibit clubs' willingness to sign players and depress salaries.

Clubs have presented a united front publicly on the levy plan, but it's known that many would happily drop it if players would agree to the entry-level restrictions.

Instead of a hard salary cap, the the NHL has proposed a compensation pool that would be divided among all clubs to pay rookies each season. Clubs that exceed their allotment, as they might to pay an exceptional rookie, would pay a penalty. Salaries in players' second and third seasons would follow a predetermined formula and could be supplemented by bonuses.

From the beginning, players have differed on rookie salary controls. Many veterans urged the union to accept it, but Goodenow said adopting any form of salary restriction would set a bad precedent. That reasoning united them for a time, but the duress of missing two paychecks is opening the cracks in their unity.

NHL Senior Vice President Brian Burke, who last week said he feared the season would be lost, said Wednesday he was "optimistic that a deal can be worked out in time to save the season."

He added, "We will find out in the next couple of days whether there is momentum or not. I think it (Monday's meeting) is a real good start. It was the best discussion we had in months.

"The next meeting is key in my mind because that good start could turn into momentum or it could grind to a halt and that, to me, is going to be the key of whether I am optimistic or not."

However, a league official said he sees no imminent resolution and disputed reports of agreement on the entry-level salary structure.

"If they had agreed to it, I'd be very happy right now and I'm not very happy," he said. "Are we optimistic about saving the season? Yes. Are we optimistic that a deal is about to be made? No. We've made some movements . . . and we've seen nothing in return that would give us cause for real optimism. Of course, that doesn't mean we won't see a smiling face on the other side of the table today."

Through Wednesday, 218 games have been missed. The NHL has canceled 14 games from each club's 84-game schedule.

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