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Just mention the words "salary cap" and watch hockey officials try to hide.

Mindful of the problems caused by that phrase in baseball, hockey officials sought to distance themselves from those words Monday at the NHL's annual meetings.Hockey, like baseball, does not currently have a collective bargaining agreement between players and owners. The NHL and the NHL Players Association are scheduled to meet Thursday in Toronto, the first talks between the sides since March 16.

Though there is no immediate threat of a strike by NHL players, the league is pressing for a new collective bargaining agreement. The last one expired Sept. 15, 1993.

The mention of a salary cap, which has become the main stumbling block between baseball owners and their striking players, made some hockey officials quickly head for the elevators at the hotel hosting the meetings.

"It's a taboo subject. It's not good for anybody if we're quoted," Boston Bruins general manager Harry Sinden said. "You can see what's happening in baseball. You get in the way of the negotiators."

When asked about a salary cap, Buffalo Sabres coach and director of hockey operations John Muckler said, "I'm taking the Fifth (Amendment)."

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the league seeks three elements in a new agreement with players - that it improves competitive balance, is fair to players and owners, and establishes a relationship between future overall revenues and players' salaries.

"There are lots of ways to do this," Bettman said. "Obviously, you could do a salary cap. But it doesn't have to be a salary cap. The players seem to not want a salary cap, so that's OK with me."

Bettman proposed 16 operational changes earlier this month - such as eliminating meal allowances, making players pay their way to training camp and reducing rosters - in an effort to force the players back to the bargaining table.

The changes will take effect Sept. 1 unless a new collective bargaining pact is reached. Training camps are scheduled to open Sept. 2.

Bettman said the players association had refused to meet with the league since March, and credited the proposed changes with providing the momentum for Thursday's meeting in Toronto.

"Our hope is to get a deal," he said.

Bettman said it would be fruitless to compare the labor situations in hockey and baseball, because the issues and the parties are so different, but did say he had learned something from the baseball strike.

"They've had a difficult season, they've had a lot of distractions," he said. "What I've learned is I don't want to be in that situation."