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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Cautious optimism as NHL sides meet today

Many bumps along way to a deal

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After several episodes of non-starters and false starts, the NHL and NHL Players' Association will meet again today to see if momentum towards a new labour agreement is in the cards.

The league has locked out its players since Sept. 15 and so far has scuttled two months of regular-season games plus the NHL's marquee Winter Classic outdoor game.

Various negotiating sessions have taken place, as well as meetings on both sides, all resulting in the spinning of wheels.

Since the weekend, when NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly and NHLPA special counsel Steve Fehr met privately at an undisclosed location for a lengthy session, a ray of optimism has developed into a negotiating session today.

It is expected to include a larger group than just the weekend's one-on-one discussion. It's entirely possible one or two owners could be part of today's meeting, while the players would include members of the negotiating committee.

Three weeks ago, the sides traded proposals, none of which was acceptable to the other. A cold two weeks brought the league to extend another olive branch when it quietly suggested to the PA that there could be a way for the owners to absorb an unknown amount of the deferred compensation into its side of hockey-related revenue (HRR).

The NHL had proposed in mid-October to "make whole" all existing contracts but the NHLPA didn't like the accounting -- those future payments in the wake of a reduced share of the HRR, likely to 50-50 from the former 57-43 in favour of the players, were to come from the players' share of revenue.

It was a sore spot for the players, since not only were they being asked to reduce their share but they were being cornered into funding owners' previous spending sprees.

Various analyses have put the cost between $100 million and $200 million to make good on such a plan and if true, that would make the difference between the sides on the most urgent recent issue something like six per cent of last year's HRR, maximum.

It doesn't seem like a lot of separation, but bear in mind there are other dangers close by on both sides.

On the owners' side, it's believed (regardless what you may read in the eastern, players-centric media) there's a considerable faction who already think the league has offered too much and that the game is better shut down for a longer term for a better deal than may be possible today.

Commissioner Gary Bettman is well aware there are numerous money-making and revenue-generating franchises -- including all of them in Canada -- that would rather be playing yesterday and he doesn't have an easy job balancing that pressure with those who are bleeding red ink and need substantial change in order to have hope.

On the players' side of the equation, and one of the reasons "cautious optimism" is about the best anybody can do so far this week, is the belief the "make-whole" issue isn't the deal-maker.

There are a host of other matters, many of them concerning player contracting rights, the NHLPA wants to talk about, items that in the league's mid-October proposal all appeared to be give-backs from 2005.

Those are items like a maximum of five-year contracts, a higher free agency age and a back-up of arbitration rights.

The players will also be eager to see concrete improvements to NHL revenue sharing.

As well, international hockey and potentially dozens of other disagreements will have to be turned into agreements before they can be incorporated into a new CBA.

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Before the NHL and NHLPA even get at it today, what could be on the horizon?

If, and it's a big if at this point, the sliver of optimism that resulted from the weekend Bill Daly-Steve Fehr meeting turns into something real, here are things you can expect to be reading about in the coming days.

 

The NHL will have agreed all or in part to do the right thing and honour existing deals, and not from the players' pockets.

A 50-50 split of hockey-related revenue will be a central part of any new system.

The players will certainly conduct a vote on any proposed or tentative settlement.

The owners may vote, too, but barring a historical revolt one way or the other, they will follow Bettman's recommendations.

Keeping in mind that no deal is imminent today, even if one were, it could take weeks to get the league back up and running. The players will need time to bring as much as one-quarter of the workforce back from Europe, and that won't happen until after a deal is properly ratified.

From there, seven days of training camp would appear to be a minimum.

Expect the NHL to stage no pre-season games and go straight into regular-season play once a new schedule can be determined.

Now that there's no pressure or realistic panic for 82 regular-season games, the league and players will have to arrive at a reasonable number of games for a season. The number will depend on the start date.

Expect any season to last until the end of April and the Stanley Cup playoffs to run (a travesty unto itself) to the end of June.

It might seem reasonable that if all the issues can be settled that need settling, and since the league has had to blow up its original schedule anyway, there would be no reason for the Winnipeg Jets to keep playing in the Southeast Division or the Eastern Conference. But there was a strong indication on Monday that no matter how smoothly any negotiation might go and however long it takes to reach a final deal with the players, if there is to be a season the NHL will not have the time to come up with a 2012-13 schedule that puts the Jets in the realigned conference proposed last year with more natural rivals such as Minnesota, Chicago and St. Louis.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 6, 2012 D1

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