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NHL, players return to talks but deal remains elusive

(Reuters) - The National Hockey League (NHL) and locked out players returned to the negotiating table on Tuesday but failed to produce a new labor deal with the deadline to salvage a shortened season fast approaching.

NHL officials, who spent New Year's Eve poring over the NHL Players Association's (NHLPA) counter proposal, were still digesting the offer on Tuesday, pushing back the start of a full bargaining session until 9 pm EST.

When the two sides did finally come together the meeting lasted less than an hour, wrapping up shortly after the league presented the union with a response to their previous proposal.

"We met with the owners committee and they did make a comprehensive response to what we gave them yesterday," NHLPA chief Donald Fehr told reporters outside the league's New York offices.

"Now what we have to do is go through the document, make some sense out of it, compare it and see what the appropriate thing do next is.

"We're going to start tonight, we'll continue in the morning and we'll be in touch with them in the morning."

With more than half the season already wiped out, and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman having set a January 19 deadline for the puck to drop on a shortened 48-game schedule, the pace of negotiations have picked up.

Contributing to the sense of urgency is a threat by the NHLPA to file a "disclaimer of interest" that would allow the union to dissolve and free individual players to file anti-trust lawsuits against the league.

The NHLPA board has until midnight on Wednesday to make a decision on whether to file the disclaimer.

NO CLASSIC

The two parties said they expected to return to the table on Wednesday, Bettman adding that the NHLPA's disclaimer of interest deadline was not something the league was focused on at the moment.

"We met this evening with the players association after spending last night and today coming up with and formulating a response to what we were given yesterday," said Bettman.

"We gave a full and complete comprehensive response, the players association is going to take it back and review it and anticipate getting back together again tomorrow."

On a day when owners and players should have been celebrating the New Year at the league's outdoor showcase Winter Classic in Detroit, the two sides were instead huddled together at the NHL's Manhattan offices trying to hammer out a deal.

Bettman indicated the league had offered more concessions in its latest counter proposal but remained firm on others, without giving details.

NHL officials are seeking a 10-year collective bargaining agreement and their latest proposal was reported to include extending the limit of player contracts to six years from their previous offer of five.

They were also prepared to adjust yearly salary variance to 10 percent from five percent and permit one buyout for each team before the 2013-14 season that would not count against the team's salary cap.

Players have been locked out since mid-September and the league has canceled games through January 14, more than 50 percent of the regular season which was scheduled to start in October.

A major hurdle has also been how to divide $3.3 billion in annual revenue with the owners demanding a 50-50 split.

(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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