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Deal in days or it's over: source

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A veteran member of the NHL’s board of governors says commissioner Gary Bettman is prepared to cancel the season on Thursday if a deal has not been reached or appears to be imminent.

The chill that has settled on NHL labour negotiations is all part of a Don Fehr plan to push commissioner Bettman into a corner for one last squeeze and there could be unfortunate circumstances for hockey fans, said the governor who requested anonymity.

The league believes Fehr is unwilling to do a deal until after Bettman has cancelled the NHL season and the union leader is now slowing the process one last time to increase pressure on the commissioner, said the governor late Thursday night.

Such a gambit could be put to the test as early as next Thursday and the governor said it will come up empty for the players and finally the fans.

If the NHL and NHLPA cannot come to a settlement and sign a new collective bargaining agreement by Thursday of next week, Bettman will announce the cancellation of the 2012-13 season.

The governor theorized Fehr will then let things sit for a day or two before trying to leverage Bettman one more time into signing a deal viewed as better for the players.

It won’t work.

The governor said owners and league personnel believe Fehr is trying to blow up the process and is no longer interested in making a deal.

They say Bettman is prepared for such an eventuality and will be supported should he elect to cancel the season on Thursday if no deal is done. Bettman will then take off what is currently on the table.

Bettman will be willing to listen and talk with Fehr after he cancels the season but it will be on the basis of doing a deal for the 2013-14 season. Once the commissioner cancels this season, a 50-50 share will no longer be offered and the league will pursue a much revamped package because the owners will have no incentive to make the deal that was on the table.

A lost season will clearly do great damage to the game and the league will find itself in a new economic reality.

There will also be the messiness of lawsuits, a dissolved union and complete uncertainty for both sides to deal with. Some owners, said the governor we spoke with, would welcome such an opportunity if the current deal cannot be closed.

Talks between the league and players had made slow but steady progress this week to the point where Fehr let a union-imposed deadline to enact a disclaimer of interest pass on Wednesday night.

Players, however, became frustrated with the league’s refusal to budge on certain issues and on Thursday took the step of beginning another vote to give Fehr the authority to disclaim interest by as early as Saturday after 5 p.m.

Bettman has made it clear a deal must be concluded by the end of next week in order to have players in training camp by next weekend to prepare for a season start on Jan. 19.

The league has stated it will not play less than a 48-game season and it has a schedule drafted that begins on Jan. 19. Teams were asked to provide dates for this schedule and altering it now would prove extremely problematic.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @garylawless

History

Updated on Thursday, January 3, 2013 at 11:28 PM CST: Corrects date from "late Wednesday night" to "late Thursday night."

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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