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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Players not surprised

Can't get too high or too low until a deal is finalized

Posted: 12/7/2012 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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If the NHL lockout -- now in its 83rd day -- has taught the stars of the game anything, it's this:

Regardless of the spin and PR games, of the hyperbole, the rumours, innuendo and unfortunate insults, nobody should get too jacked up or too depressed until signatures are slapped on a deal by both sides, whenever that might be. And while that's an easy approach to take in theory, in the interim it is now being severely tested -- as will be the players' collective resolve -- given the developments Thursday night when the NHL's latest offer was summarily yanked from the table.

Unfortunately for everyone involved in the game, the two sides seemed as far apart as ever, the 2012-13 season never seemed more in jeopardy and the two sides more galvanized than ever.

"Plain and simple these owners think they can break us apart. GOOD LUCK!," said Scottie Upshall of the Florida Panthers via his Twitter account. "We r stronger than we've ever been and r behind Fehr %100. There's no pressure yet on the owners to lose this year, that's why they still treat us like Cattle. They'll need a partner come January."

Added Marty St. Louis of the Tampa Bay Lightning: "I won't be skating any time soon," he told The Tampa Tribune. "We were making progress I guess and then you get an ultimatum. Tough to take."

Over the course of a few hours Thursday players' spirits went from cautiously optimistic to concerned, back to cynical and, in many cases, bitter disappointment. But for all the Scottie Upshalls out there, there were also some reasoned reactions. Said Jim Slater of the Winnipeg Jets in a text to The Free Press late Thursday:

"Was a weird couple of hours. Not sure what happened, but we need to continue to try and resolve the issues at hand. I still believe there is a deal to be had. It's been a long, bumpy road but this is a time where we need to keep going in hopes of recapturing the season."

"I think it would be awful to lose a season," said Andrew Ladd, one of the eight to nine Jets, including Slater, and local NHLers who continue to skate at MTS Iceplex. "I think it would be stupid. We don't need to do that. When we finally have a deal, that's when I'll be optimistic."

Thursday began with the two sides still throwing around ideas into the wee hours, but deteriorated rapidly to the point that some of the six owners that helped bring so much optimism to the process -- including Mark Chipman of the Jets -- were on airplanes back home by mid afternoon. Chipman later issued a statement in which he questioned whether some players understand the owners' perspective and also apologized to fans and sponsors "for letting them down."

But for as much momentum as the early week brought the process, by late Thursday the stone was rolling back down the hill and the vitriol spewed by both sides indicated just how much work still needs to be done to get a deal. How that can get done now is another matter for the next few days. Jets player rep Ron Hainsey, one of the NHLPA's big-wigs, told reporters in New York that late Wednesday when players indicated to the league they wanted their leadership back in room to close the deal, the league responded that having NHLPA executive director Don Fehr back in room could be a "deal breaker."

One NHL executive referred to Fehr as a "suicide bomber" to Adrian Dater of The Denver Post.

More from Dater, via an unnamed player: "We were ready to play again. But Don came in (Wednesday) and told us we could get more and to hold out."

Meanwhile, more and more players must be reconsidering their playing options.

Winnipegger Ryan Reaves of the St. Louis Blues said late Thursday his Plan B will be put into place ASAP -- he's leaving today to join the Orlando Solar Bears of the ECHL. He'll stay there until there is a resolution.

"All this is going to happen from time to time during negotiations," said Reaves late Thursday. "But it's so public with us. You take any company and start watching their union meetings and talking about their CBA and it could be a lot the same if it was blown up to the proportions this is. This happens because it's hockey.

"But I still don't think we're at the point where the season gets written off."

Among the sticking points still being debated were the NHL's wish for the new collective bargaining agreement to be 10 years in length, with an opt-out clause for either side after eight years.

Ladd was asked after Thursday's skate at the Iceplex why the players are against in a deal of that length and his answer offered a hint as to why there remains so much distrust between the two sides.

"The owners like a 10-year deal because it's good for the owners, first and foremost," he said. "Ten years is a long deal and to look that far into the future and predict the economics, you just can't do. That's part of it and in five or six years there will be a new group of players coming in and they should have the opportunity to negotiate their own deal, too."

The owners did move on some issues, including leaving the unrestricted free agency eligibility and salary arbitration rules as the same as the previous agreement while bumping up their offer in the "make-whole" provision. But then yanked the deal, saying it was part of a package.

Asked if the two sides shouldn't have kept the dialogue going until a deal was reached, Ladd -- speaking before Thursday's breakdown in talks -- offered up a thought that foreshadowed what would happen hours later.

"That's easier said than done," he said. "It's easy to put that pressure on the guys there. But at times you have to take a step back and realize where you're at in the negotiation and if it's not the deal you want, then you've got to wait.

"I don't know their deadline in terms of their drop-dead date. But our standpoint all along is we're not going to take a deal that we don't think is fair."

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 7, 2012 C3

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