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NHL, players’ union meet well into the night

Voting Saturday by players would allow Donald Fehr to, in essence, dissolve the union if talks didn’t go well.

lucas jackson/reuters

Voting Saturday by players would allow Donald Fehr to, in essence, dissolve the union if talks didn’t go well.

NEW YORK — In a move engineered by a federal mediator, Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr met Saturday for a daylong bargaining session, the first face-to-face talks between the NHL and the players’ union since negotiations broke down Thursday.

The session had an all-or-nothing feel to it. It took place as players completed a vote on whether to authorize Fehr to dissolve the union if negotiations stalled. If Fehr were to exercise that option, it would very likely end the bargaining and send the proceedings to court.

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Yet at the same time, hopes soared that a settlement to the 112-day lockout could be close. Bettman had set a deadline on Jan. 11 for saving a 48-game schedule. If a settlement is reached by then, the season would start no later than Jan. 20. An earlier settlement could allow for a 50-game schedule.

‘‘Talks are continuing,’’ Bill Daly, the NHL’s deputy commissioner, said in an e-mail as the talks ground through their ninth hour. ‘‘Slow progress.’’

Scot L. Beckenbaugh, deputy director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, spent 12 hours Friday shuttling between the NHL office in Midtown Manhattan and the union’s hotel two blocks away.

Under federal mediation rules, Beckenbaugh was not allowed to reveal to one side what the other side had said. Rather, he was bound to discuss the issues with each side, learn how far each was willing to go without indicating what the other had said.

Finally, he determined that it would be worthwhile to bring the sides together for a bargaining session, which began at 1:15 p.m. Saturday at the union’s hotel. Beckenbaugh was present for the talks, which were still going as the clock approached midnight.

‘‘Obviously, Scot has been helpful to the process and in helping construct a framework where progress can be made,’’ Daly told the Orange County Register in an e-mail.

Voting on the measure authorizing Fehr to disclaim interest ended at 6 p.m., with the players approving the measure by an overwhelming margin.

A disclaimer would be tantamount to dissolving the union and would enable individual players to file antitrust suits against the NHL. If the courts found that the lockout was unlawful, the NHL could owe the players billions of dollars in damages.

Fehr was not expected to disclaim interest while progress was being made in negotiations. On Wednesday, he allowed an earlier disclaimer authorization to expire, but the players immediately voted to reauthorize, renewing the threat to sue.

The sides entered Saturday believed to be close on the issues that were blocking a settlement, and Beckenbaugh apparently found common ground Friday.

At lunchtime, the league wanted a 2013-14 salary cap at $60 million a club, down from $70.2 million for 2012-13. But during the day, the league moved to $62.5 million, according to reports, closer to the union’s demand of a $65 million cap. In the early evening, the union dropped slightly to $64.3 million, the upper limit for the 2011-12 season.

Differences were small in other areas, as well. The league wanted individual contracts limited to six years, or seven years for teams re-signing players. The union’s demand was eight years.

The league and the union reportedly reached an agreement that either side could opt out of a new collective bargaining agreement in the eighth year of a 10-year agreement. The players entered the day pushing for an opt-out clause after seven years.

If the lockout is settled and the schedule is restored, each team would play 48 or 50 games, with no games outside the conference.

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