Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Voices of reason a reason to hope

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They tried something new in negotiations for a new NHL collective bargaining agreement this week.

Four owners were added to the mix and interacted directly across from players. Participation from NHL and NHLPA counsel and staff was limited to one extra each.

The dynamic was designed to, and did, foster communication and a better understanding of the other side.

And for a day, some listening to ideas and provisions and the reasons for them went both ways, and though the details stayed inside, optimism was impossible to keep in the room,

The moderates on both sides seemed to have seized their opportunity for a foothold. Reason won the day.

For a day.

And then, well, we all should have known better.

This labour dispute has already been too protracted, too dug in, too obstinate in so many directions. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr don't like any characterizations of lack of trust hurting these talks, but it's there in plain sight.

The league doesn't believe Fehr and the union want to make a deal. At least not yet.

The players' side is quick to point to all the reasons the NHL is unwilling to dance, be it player contract issues, make-whole or transition payments or term of deal.

The sniping at Bettman, Fehr, Boston owner Jeremy Jacobs or the revolving door of players in and our of meetings just never goes away. Trusting people just don't do that.

After this week's early optimism, the suggestion's been made that the NHLPA just didn't trust owners talking directly to players any longer.

After a frantic day Wednesday where both sides had their mini-volcanoes but still moderates urging each other to keep at it, be reasonable and not give up, Thursday's acrimony was unavoidable.

Why?

Because it was not yet the correct time for the moderates to save the day.

They may well have paved the way to a deal, if there's one to be had in the coming few weeks that are left, but Fehr and his leadership are not yet ready to put a series of provisions in front of all the players and say, as one sage participant in the NHL's economy and culture put it the other day:

"We thought we could get X, right now we've got Y but I think this is about the best we're going to do."

Equally, the same words don't seem to have yet come from Bettman to his group of owners.

So again Thursday, after nearly two days of leak blackouts, the details began flowing -- always bad news if you want to be hopeful -- followed by aggressive recriminations. With their new money in hand, Fehr suggested the dollar amounts just about matched and that a deal ought to be close.

Bettman followed, and as a large audience could see he was particularly offended and animated as he explained this week's moderate-generated offers were a package deal not to be cherry-picked and saying things we're close was a mistake.

Now the week's progress, initiated by the moderates, has been tossed in the trash can and the hard-liners on both sides have their opening to resume control.

Will a deal come with the hawks on each side in charge?

It's very hard to see how, given the short time frame left before, as Bettman hinted Thursday, a viable season of at least 48 games can still be conducted.

Bettman may have said the most salient thing in Thursday's flurry, that it was time to step back and take a deep breath.

But maybe the examination period will drive home the reality that for those truly interested in a deal, the moderate voices will eventually be the ones coming up with the resolution.

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

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

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