No talks were held Thursday in the NHL labor dispute, none are scheduled today and no business will be conducted over Christmas, pushing the earliest date for an end to the lockout past New Year's.
"There's nothing that has occurred in the last couple of days that is encouraging at all," said Tom Reich, a player agent who has served as a go-between during the dispute. "Now, players are in a position where there has to be a deal without a (payroll) tax and owners are taking the position they have to have more (concessions)."
Sources on both sides said an agreement is still possible by Jan. 5 for a season opener on Jan. 15, but the schedule would be shorter than 50 games, as the league's Board of Governors mandated last week. Lawyers for each side were in contact Thursday but they were not expected to set up any meetings until after Christmas, and those sessions would probably involve small groups rather than the chief negotiators.
Only if players give ground on salary arbitration and free agency will the league eliminate its proposed payroll tax, management sources said. Players reaffirmed their opposition to the tax this week during a meeting in Toronto.
A possible solution that did not include a tax was floated last week during talks involving small delegations from each side. It was tied to players relinquishing salary arbitration rights almost totally and might require raising the age for unrestricted free agency to 31. Players have said they won't give up arbitration rights completely.
Two league sources said that as long as talks continue, even sporadically, Commissioner Gary Bettman will not exercise his power to cancel the season. But if there's no resolution by Jan. 11, the schedule will be cut to 44 or 40 games because of arena scheduling conflicts.