Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Silence is golden at NHL talks

Absence of usual verbal vitriol good sign progress being made

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NEW YORK -- Silence never sounded so good to hockey fans.

On the 52nd day of this interminable lockout the caustic cacophony ended and the men in charge of our game began to whisper among themselves in search of solutions.

No grandstanding, no players on Twitter calling Gary Bettman bad names, no agents and media sniping at one another. Just bargaining between the two parties.

What a novelty. Sitting down in a room and going round and round looking for positions to agree upon as if it mattered. Reality was the background music to this dance -- not arguments rooted in rhetoric.

The NHL and NHLPA met for several hours on Tuesday at an undisclosed location in New York. While there was little talk coming out of the meeting, its length and the promise of another meeting today suggests progress is finally being made.

While no one would go on the record, reports indicated Tuesday's talks centred on player contracting, while today's talks will focus on the "make-whole" provision.

"Collective bargaining negotiations between the National Hockey League and representatives of the National Hockey League's Players' Association recessed Tuesday night at 10:15 p.m. (EST). With meetings scheduled to resume Wednesday, the League will not characterize the substance or detail of the discussions until their conclusion," said deputy commissioner Bill Daly in a statement.

The two sides have done little but carp at one another to this point, but with the potential of a lost season growing larger as each wasted day turns into the next, it appears there is now an impetus to move forward.

Finally, it appears the two sides are willing to trade and pass concepts back and forth across the table. The posturing has been significantly downgraded. We've all been waiting for them to negotiate.

It started on Tuesday.

Where those negotiations lead from here remains to be seen, but many observers agree the two sides are now in a two-week window to reach an agreement or face dire consequences.

Hardliners on the ownership side are not interested in playing a 50-game season beginning in January. They want 62 games at a minimum and would prefer 70. They'd need to start Dec. 1 to get in 70 games, leaving two weeks to conclude a deal and another week to get teams ready to hit the ice.

Union leader Don Fehr spoke with the media Tuesday afternoon prior to heading into negotiations.

"The players' view has always been that we ought to keep negotiating until we find a way to get an agreement," said Fehr. "You sort of stay at it day by day -- so it's very good to be getting back to the table. We hope that this time it produces more progress than we've seen in the past and we can figure out a way to make an agreement and to get the game back on the ice as soon as possible."

Fehr also tipped the union's hand on a number of issues they consider troubling at this stage.

"The player contracting rights are very important to them obviously," said Fehr, before adding that the "make-whole" proposition the league has indicated they would alter is not the only issue needing to be solved.

The sides have agreed to split hockey related revenue down the middle but the players want contracts signed under their previous share of 57 per cent to be paid to the full dollar amount. The league originally proposed a mechanism that guaranteed those dollars through a deferment program that would eventually take those funds from the earning potential of future players.

Last week as the league cancelled the Winter Classic it also leaked the news they would be willing to fund the make-whole mostly out of their end.

"It depends on what (make-whole) appears to be," said Fehr. "Obviously, to the extent that the players can achieve the not going backwards that will be significant. It doesn't end the matter, there are still other things that are important."

Fehr would not characterize the meetings last weekend between his brother and NHLPA special counsel Steve Fehr and Daly.

"Sometimes you've got to get together in a forum and figure out logistically how to go forward," said Fehr. "We think it was a productive discussion in that regard.

"I'm not going to comment on signs, I'm not going to prognosticate, I'm not going to predict. It's not something which in my experience is a productive thing to do. We'll just wait."

The two sides had not met since talks broke down on Oct. 18, following the NHLPA tabling three offers the league shot down in a matter of minutes. The ensuing rhetoric centred around ownership claiming there was no reason to meet and the union chiding the league for not wanting to sit down.

Fehr can jab with the best of them, but on Tuesday he was conciliatory.

"We're hopeful that we'll start bargaining and we'll continue bargaining until we find a way to make a deal," he said.

Tuesday was about real talk and not cheap shots. Hope for more of the same today.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 7, 2012 C1

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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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