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Volume 24 No. 137
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     While lower-level negotiations continued between the NHL and
its players, the union was forced to respond to the first public
criticism from its membership.  On Friday, Devils forward
Stephane Richer was quoted in LE JOURNAL DE MONTREAL as saying,
"I am convinced that if you took a secret vote among the 650
players, the season would start tomorrow morning" (LE JOURNAL DE
MONTREAL, 12/16).  CP's Alan Adams writes, "There's a feeling
that Richer isn't alone in his comments, but he's the first
player to state them publicly."  But NHLPA Exec Dir Bob Goodenow
responded:  "The overall membership supports the bargaining
committee.  The support is from players at every level, from
Gretzky to Messier to Hull to other players.  These guys
understand the issues" (Toronto GLOBE & MAIL, 12/17).  Devils
Player Rep Bruce Driver said Richer "hasn't been in contact with
any of the players on our team.  By no means is one guy speaking
for the membership" (Joe Lapointe, N.Y. TIMES, 12/17).  From the
response of several players in a New Haven charity game, Jeff
Jacobs reports, "What could have been a painfully divisive
statement for the players turned them solid as a rock" (HARTFORD
COURANT, 12/19).  But the union was still "bailing furiously"
(Paul Hunter, TORONTO STAR, 12/17).
     MORE JITTERS?  In New York, Larry Brooks cites "multiple
sources with ties to the NHLPA" and reports that a "significant
number of players has communicated surprise over management
solidarity and fear over the immediate prospect of canceling the
season."  One prominent agent:  "Players with whom I've spoken
have told me they understand it will be impossible to make a deal
without a tax.  They've told me they believe it's in their best
interests for Bob to get the best deal possible on the systems
issues and then to negotiate the tax down as far as he can" (N.Y.
POST, 12/17).  Stars Owner Norman Green called on both sides to
hire an independent accounting firm and take secret ballot votes
of their memberships (Joe Lapointe, N.Y. TIMES, 12/18).
     THIS WEEK'S OUTLOOK:  There were no plans for a full
negotiating session, but there were reports of "some progress"
made during lower-level meetings.  Maple Leafs President Cliff
Fletcher said the schedule is up to Bettman and Goodenow
(CP/OTTAWA CITIZEN, 12/19).  Some saw the emergence of Fletcher
as a positive sign.  Writes Dave Fuller, "It's known Fletcher
would gladly ditch the payroll tax in exchange for greater
concessions on salary arbitration and free agency."  But one
league source said that concessions would have to be
"considerable" for the NHL to abandon its tax (TORONTO SUN,
12/19).  League sources also denied an L.A. TIMES report that the
talks are focused on two solutions -- one plan with a tax, and
one without.  NHL sources say the league has not dropped its
demand for a payroll tax at any time (Damien Cox, TORONTO STAR,
12/19).   THE SEASON OF HOPE:  While Dave Fuller cites one "club
insider" who says, "The deal is done" -- he also reports the
league is working on a Jan. 15 start (TORONTO SUN, 12/19).
     PLAYERS-ONLY LEAGUE:  Agent Rich Winter confirmed that he
has invited the operators of 38 major arenas to a meeting on
January 9 in Minneapolis to discuss the formation of a World
Hockey League.  Winter told the EDMONTON JOURNAL:  "Who's on
board?  On the record?  Nobody.  We all want to see a deal made.
But I can tell you, more than 50 percent of the major agents,
including agents for more than half the top players, are behind
it. ... The owners are talking about replacement players.  We
think it's a lot easier to have replacement owners.  There's only
26 of them, and they're not very good at what they do."  Winter
claims support from the Teamsters, former IIHF official Gord
Renwick and TV people in Hollywood (Cam Cole, EDMONTON JOURNAL,