NEW YORK — The NHL and the players' association agreed on issues related to player safety and drug testing Friday, but the core economic divide that is preventing an end to the league's latest lockout was not even on the agenda.
The sides returned to the bargaining table after more than two weeks apart, and some progress was made in about two hours of discussions during a morning session.
"You would absolutely hope that things progress and kind of catch fire, but right now we're just going to take it one step at a time and try to come to an agreement on as many issues as possible," said former player Mathieu Schneider, now an NHLPA special assistant to the executive director. "We're taking baby steps right now."
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman took part in Friday morning's talks, but union head Donald Fehr wasn't present. He is expected to join the discussions during the course of the three-day meeting.
After breaking for lunch, the sides were expected to reconvene later Friday and then again on Saturday and Sunday.
"It says that both sides are committed to getting back to the table and working," Schneider said.
Schneider added that there were agreements on more rigorous drug testing, including increasing it to parts of the year during which testing is not currently done.
Both sides are on the same page in believing that the use of performance-enhancing drugs is not a problem in the NHL.
"We're in agreement that it's not an issue in our sport," Schneider said. "I think it's in the players' best interest as well as the sport to close off any possible time during the year where players could use."
Other topics on tap for Friday and through the weekend are various health and safety issues, time players spend at training facilities, and other non-economic topics.
"We like to say that nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to, but we've certainly made some headway," Schneider said. "A lot of it was done previous to this morning. We're taking notes of where we stand. I would say that we have a lot of mutual ground that we have found agreement on."
It is not impossible that monetary issues will come up for discussion in this round of talks, they just aren't scheduled. Neither side has indicated it is prepared to make a new offer now regarding how to split up the more than $3 billion annual pot of hockey-related revenue.
"In general, when you're dealing with collective bargaining, when you start to have agreements on smaller issues, it can lead to bigger issues," Schneider said, "but it's still too early to say." These are the first talks since the lockout was put in place on Sept. 16 and they came a day after the league canceled the remaining preseason games. The regular season is to start Oct. 11.
By IRA PODELL