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Uncomfortably numb: Donald Fehr and Gary Bettman

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There was a point Thursday night -- not long after Don Fehr and his lieutenants ambled up on stage in New York for a second time and Gary Bettman's face took on various shades of red and purple -- when the 2012-13 NHL season appeared to be deader than dead.

 

Oh, certainly things could still get uglier, especially if Bettman officially pulls the pin on the hand grenade the league and the NHL Players' Association are tossing back and forth.

But through a lockout that is now into its 84th day, Thursday night's bizarre and very public sequence of events -- when Fehr hinted an agreement was close, reversed his stance after a phone message from the league and Bettman went ballistic in yanking the deal -- might have been the low point in this silly mess.

Fascinating theatre? Maybe for awhile. And then the realization that this thing is in a serious nosedive after a couple of days of optimism and progress.

"I didn't plan on it, but I turned to it and I was watching it for about an hour and-a-half," said Bryan Little Friday, not long after skating at the MTS Iceplex with a handful of Winnipeg Jets teammates. "I was pretty much glued to it and was interested to see what both sides had to say.

"It was strange to watch that, to be honest. It didn't really seem like it was organized. Don was up there talking and within minutes he got that phone call and came on and it was pretty much downhill and all negative from there.

"It dragged on and I turned the channel after awhile because Gary was talking for awhile. After it started to get negative I didn't care what he said, I just wanted to turn off the TV and go to bed."

That "wake-me-when-this-is-over" sentiment is held by many now, especially after Thursday's dramatics and histrionics. This was old back in September when the lockout started.

But as much as Thursday seemed apocalyptic, the sun did indeed rise Friday morning. And now that some raw emotions have been vented, the question now remains as to how to get the negotiations back on the rails.

Yes, believe it or not, some optimism remains -- at least from the players camp.

"Hopefully today brings some new things and we can move on from there," said Jet centre Jim Slater Friday. "Going from (Thursday) night, it didn't look good. But the guys here, we're still positive we're going to get something done at some point... maybe not here in the next little while but hopefully down the road.

"It's just a weird situation. Just listening to media talk, this could be one of the most awkward negotiations going around in any league. But you can't plan on how negotiations are going to go. It's tough. This is the first one I've been a part of and it definitely seems like it's a real tough one. You've just got to put your boots on and keep going."

Slater and Little were the two Jets who braved the media gauntlet at the Iceplex on Friday to offer up their take. They still have faith in their union leadership, still are convinced the foundation of an agreement is in place and that a season will be played.

But there was also this: A real sense that the posturing and efforts to win over public sentiment has become an absolute, complete waste of time.

"Enough of the PR battle. We've got to get something going here," said Slater. "It's not about who looks better in the fans' eyes or the media's eyes. Who knows what happened there (Thursday)? Obviously something did.

"It's both sides. There's not winners here. Obviously, the players want to play and fans want to see the players play. Any time you're not doing that and you're missing games you're letting fans down, both the owners and players.

"You can't take back what happened, you've got to get better and get something done. That's the main focus here. What's happened to this point is over, we can't change it. Hopefully both sides can get back to the table and be talking and get negotiating again."

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

1111

Another week has passed and as the days on the calendar keep getting crossed out, the chance to get a deal done shrinks.

Here are three possible pressure points that could help get a deal done:

1Without a drop-dead date -- the proverbial line in the sand -- the NHLPA feels it can still squeeze more out the league during negotiations. And until this week, it certainly affected the intensity of the talks.

The two sides know now that a deadline wouldn't be a bluff, given Bettman's claim that anything less than a 48-game schedule wouldn't work. Just as a reference point, the 1994-95 lockout ended on Jan. 11 and the NHL squeezed in a 48-game regular season after losing 468 contests.

11Both sides are losing giant chunks of coin here. The number of games cancelled has reached 372 and the combined salary lost by the players is over $530 million. Owners are said to be losing $18-20 million a day.

The NHL's sponsorship revenue is being affected without a full season and while advertisers and fans will come back in Canada, the threat of a lost season in some of the weaker markets is significant -- particularly with relatively new ownership in places like Dallas and Phoenix.

11The moderate owners, including Mark Chipman of the Jets, tried this week to help bridge the gap. Those men shouldn't throw up the white flag yet and keep pushing. And in a 700-member players' union there is little doubt not everyone is singing from the same songbook. Those voices -- any voice in the game, including agents -- must be heard to push their leadership to bridge the gap.

 

1111The framework of a deal is here, even though the league yanked their offer from the table. But these are the three key areas holding up an agreement:

1The league is pushing for a 10-year CBA with an opt-out for both sides after eight years. The NHLPA offered an eight-year agreement with six-year opt-out.

1The NHL wants a five-year limit on contract lengths (or seven if the player is the team's own); the NHLPA has countered with eight. This is a meaty issue for the league, as deputy commissioner Bill Daly referred to it as "the hill we will die on."

11These are a lot of issues here as part of the dollars involved in moving from the old CBA to the new one. But here's the biggest: the NHL has moved to $300 million from $211 million in make-whole -- the union has asked for $393 -- and doesn't appear to be willing to budge any further.

 

--Tait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 8, 2012 C1

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