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League, players continue to talk as deadline looms

A worker lowers the U.S. flag outside of NHL headquarters in New York, January 2, 2013. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
A worker lowers the U.S. flag outside of NHL headquarters in New York, January 2, 2013. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

(Reuters) - The National Hockey League and locked out players appeared closer to a new labor deal that would salvage a partial season after Wednesday's midnight deadline passed without the union filing a disclaimer of interest and dissolving.

With the lockout reaching its 110th day, negotiations began under an NHL Players Association (NHLPA) threat to decertify, freeing individual players to file anti-trust lawsuits against the league.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters that the union never played the disclaimer card during any negotiations and that both parties and a U.S. mediator would be back at the bargaining table at 10 am ET (1500 GMT) on Thursday.

"The word disclaimer has yet to be uttered to us by the players association," Bettman told reporters as he left meetings at the league's Manhattan offices. "When you disclaim interest as a union you notify the other side.

"We have not been notified. It has never been discussed so there is no disclaimer."

While one deadline passed, another is looming large on the horizon, Bettman having set a January 19 limit for the puck to drop on a shortened 48-game schedule.

With the clock ticking, both Bettman and NHLPA chief Donald Fehr could agree on one thing - that much work needs to be done if there is to be a season.

"If you have a river to cross you have to build a bridge or do something else if you are going to cross the river," said Fehr, deflecting any questions about the disclaimer of interest. "We've moved closer on some issues but work remains to be done."

The two sides have spent three days in New York exchanging proposals and counter proposals and appeared to inching slowly towards a deal.

PENSION ISSUE

The back-and-forth diplomacy continued on Wednesday, with brief meetings in the morning and a longer session that began at 8 pm stretching into Thursday morning.

There have been indications the two sides are close to agreement on major issues - such has how to split $3.3 billion in revenue - contract lengths and revenue sharing but they remain far apart on others.

Player pension plans and how they are funded has suddenly popped up as the hot topic along with where the salary cap ceiling should be set.

The league wants a cap locked in at $60 million while the players are believed to be seeking something in the $65-67 million range.

"It's been a long day with lots of meetings both internal and with the players association, and the process will be continuing tomorrow morning," Bettman said.

"There has been some progress but we are still apart on a number of issues, but as long as the process continues I am hopeful.

"On some issues we agreed, on some we moved towards each other and on some we said 'no'. I think that applies to both parties."

Players have been locked out since mid-September and the league has cancelled games up to January 14, more than 50 percent of the regular season which was scheduled to start in October.

The dispute is the NHL's fourth work stoppage in 20 years and first since a lockout forced the cancellation of the entire 2004-05 season.

(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto, Editing by Larry Fine and John O'Brien)

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