Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fork in the road

Fehr's response to owners' proposal will likely determine fate of NHL season

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It's clear Don Fehr doesn't like the latest offer presented by the NHL and by extension, neither do his players. What we're also hearing is neither do all the owners.

It appears NHL commissioner Gary Bettman went out on a bit of a limb to get a deal done and many owners were not just surprised but also a little miffed at the considered largesse of the offer.

If and when Fehr snaps that limb in two with a counter-offer that doesn't come close to what the NHL is asking for, Bettman will have little room to work.

Fehr's job is to get the best deal for his players. Right now, he needs to judge if the offer on the table is the path to take or if he can wait a little longer to see what else is available.

That's Fehr's fork in the road. Sit down and begin to negotiate, knowing Bettman will want to stick closely to what he's offered, or stall a little longer.

The message from ownership corners on Wednesday was that time is now of the essence and Bettman is running out of it as much as Fehr. The deal on the table is viewed as Bettman's. If it gets accepted and gets players back on the ice, it will be grudgingly viewed as a success by the owners.

But if the union wants to push the envelope, Bettman will have far less leeway as time proceeds. He'll lose some of his autonomy as the hardliners in the NHL camp push their agenda to the front of the room.

If those boys get loose, say goodbye to hockey this season. This was Bettman's best last chance at keeping them caged. But be sure they are snarling.

There are owners who could have played under the old deal and made money, so Bettman's latest offer isn't a problem for those clubs. But for the franchises that struggled under the previous pact, Bettman's gambit doesn't sit well. They want more. And if they miss any games at all, their voices will begin to be the loudest.

It's not quite 82 games or none on the ownership side, but it's not far off. They've said all along they won't fund a protracted work stoppage. They need to play their games to collect their revenue. If they don't play, their offer will shrink. It will shrink by definition alone. But there will be reductions piled on top as well.

Talking to players on Wednesday, it's apparent they still see the deal as a "major haircut," to borrow the expression from one I spoke to. The players have as much say in this now as the owners. This is a mutual stoppage, if not by definition then by spirit, and any solution will be the same.

The players say they want a deal that will work going forward so they don't have to do this again. Don't we all.

But they must also, at some point, reconcile lost wages today against percentage points down the line.

They want to win the philosophical battle but have to keep an eye on the practical as well.

Look, it's all a guessing game right now and some scribe in Winnipeg with a cellphone melted to his ear can listen for the answers, but he can't provide them.

On Wednesday, there were no answers forthcoming and a sage voice suggested the only person with any concrete knowledge of where this is going is Don Fehr.

If Fehr wants to try to delay and hope for a better deal, he takes the risk of having the owners pull out and cancel the season. Most observers are in agreement that the NHL is not interested in negotiating this deal in dribs and drabs and losing 40 games and the attendant revenue.

If they are going to do a deal, it will have to be done now.

Fehr, however, isn't interested in what the owners want. He's charged with getting the best deal for his players. How he reads the tea leaves right now is paramount.

Today, we'll finally find out what Don Fehr is thinking. Twitter: @garylawless

deal or no deal? c3

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 18, 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
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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