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NHL's Burke sees distant hope

What is the deadline for the NHL to reach a labor agreement with the union or cancel the season?

"I go to Mass on Sundays praying I never have to answer that question," NHL senior vice president Brian Burke said Wednesday.

But with the latest negotiations on Monday yielding "no progress" and the preceding 18 months of sporadic talks yielding little progress, Burke may have to answer that question.

"I believe there is light at the end of the tunnel," Burke said, "but the tunnel is from here to Spain."

Burke was in Tampa on his tour of NHL cities to trumpet the owners' side _ which he says is misunderstood. He also spoke with Lightning players Brian Bradley, Gerard Gallant and John Tucker.

The sides have talked twice by telephone and once face-to-face over the past two weeks.

Burke related the lack of negotiations to a story about Wayne Gretzky. The superstar once was told he shot the puck too much. Gretzky's reply? "100 percent of the shots not taken never go in."

"I'm not saying talking is going to result in a deal," Burke said. "But I know not talking is never going to result in a deal. It's crazy we're not talking."

Bradley agreed but said the two sides have to have something to talk about. "I talked to Bob (Goodenow) last night and he said their proposal (on Monday) was the same as it was two months ago."

The major issue is the payroll tax. The NHL would tax teams whose payrolls were over the league average ($14.2-million last season) and put that money in a pool to help small-market teams with payroll. The tax would be graduated up to 122 percent. There also would be a salary floor, forcing teams to spend a minimum amount on salaries, probably around $12-million.

The union says the tax is too high and would act as a salary cap.

"We have offered to guarantee that players will not lose ground and the tax won't drive salaries down during the term of this agreement," Burke said.

Under the proposal, the percentage of revenue that now goes toward players salaries would never be lower, even if revenues went down.

"We think, by what we've shown in the last year, we can keep growing revenues in the game. The Fox deal, the Nike deal. The deal with Anheuser-Busch," Burke said. "It would be like a boat that's anchored at low tide. As the tide rises, we think the players salaries also would rise."

"We've heard him say that if revenues go up, our salaries go up," Bradley said. "But we don't know how they would disclose revenues. That's the thing. People can do whatever they want with their books."

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