By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) - Two of the chief figures in the NHL labor dispute were doing a lot of talking on Wednesday but not to each other as the lockout dragged into a fourth month and hopes of salvaging the season continue to slip away.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly and Donald Fehr, head of the NHL Players Association (NHLPA), defended their positions during a media blitz, each side blaming the other for stalled negotiations and offering little hope of a quick return to the bargaining table.
The two sides have not met since last Thursday, when U.S. federal mediators joined negotiations but were unable to nudge the parties closer to a new collective bargaining agreement.
"The owners have not indicated their desire to resume," Fehr told reporters, adding that no new talks are scheduled.
"We have indicated any number of times that we are willing to resume whenever they are.
"We have to find a way to have a discussion. How do you make an agreement if you don't meet?"
While Daly was making the rounds of Toronto radio stations, Fehr met with reporters prior to a NHLPA-sponsored charity game that featured locked out players at the former Maple Leaf Gardens.
The exhibition contest marked the first time since February 1999 that NHL players had skated at the arena and there is growing concern it could be some time before fans see real NHL action anywhere.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has stated he could not see the league playing less than a 48-game regular season and with 526 games, or more than 40 percent of the season, already canceled time is running out.
Daly warned that the league may soon cancel more games, but at another stop the deputy commissioner was asked if he believed there would be a season and he answered with an emphatic "yes".
"Good, that's good news, I certainly hope he is right," said Fehr. "That's the players' goal, that's what we want to try and do and hopefully get back together and negotiate out the remaining issues as soon as possible."
CLOCK IS TICKING
Although no cut-off date has been set, it is believed the two sides have until mid-January to work out a deal or lose the entire season.
"I don't know that (a mid-January deadline), it is not a decision we would make and there hasn't been any communication to us in that regard," said Fehr. "I still presume that there is time and that's what we're working for."
With the clocking ticking, the two sides have upped the ante.
The NHLPA membership will conclude a five-day vote on Friday that could give the executive board authority to file a "disclaimer of interest" and dissolve the union, freeing players to file anti-trust lawsuits in the courts and have the lockout deemed illegal.
The NHL, in a pre-emptive strike, filed a class action complaint and unfair labor practice charge against the players' union.
"Now we're back at one of these standstills where we're not talking," said Toronto Maple Leafs' Joffrey Lupul.
"I'm not an expert on collective bargaining but there is not going to be a deal done until we're sitting across the table from each other.
"We want to talk. We're free every day. If Gary (Bettman) wants us to come over to his house, we'll go right over and talk."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)