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Fans' hopes for a quick solution dimming

But diehards understand hockey has a bottom line

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In July, Dale Oakes joined hundreds of other fans in the cool air at the MTS Iceplex to watch the Winnipeg Jets' prospects fly across the ice.

Now, with an NHL lockout looming and the two sides in negotiations manning their battle stations, it seems it could be a long time before Oakes and other fans have another chance to see any kind of Jets hockey in action.

"Up until today, there was a light glimmering," Oakes said Thursday. "I was still remaining somewhat optimistic."

Not anymore; not after Gary Bettman stood up before reporters and drew his line in the sand: Until the NHL players' union is willing to let go of a larger share of league revenues, there won't be any NHL hockey.

"At the end of the day, hockey's a business," Oakes said, as he prepared to drive his own eight-year-old son to hockey practice. "As fans, it's a harsh reality to face that it's called a sport, but it's a business of sport. We have to live through it, as we've lived through it before."

Live through it and also pick it apart: As Bettman's televised press conference wrapped, hockey watchers strived to read between his lines; exactly what goes on behind closed doors when the NHL and NHL Players' Association negotiate a collective bargaining agreement is a bit of a mystery.

"I really don't think you're ever going to get both sides of the story," said Winnipegger Trevor Maughan, another die-hard hockey fan who blogs about the NHL at his Jets blog, Arctic Ice Hockey. "Both sides want to make it seem like it's something it's not... and there's so much jargon and lingo."

One change from the 2005 lockout, Maughan mused, is the Twitter era. Both sides are leveraging social media to spread their message every hour. "It's really fascinating to see, because you really know what's going on," he said. "But the way it's being handled by both parties is rather standoffish. Both parties make it seem like 'We're presenting something fair and reasonable, and the other party is being strong-headed.' "

Par for the course in negotiations like these.

While the financial details being discussed are most definitely secret, the negotiating process isn't, said Mike Burkett, a partner at Toronto-based law firm Stikeman Elliott LLP.

"I would suspect both sides have their 'Negotiations 101', which is, 'What's your bottom line? What deal are you prepared to do at the end of the day?' " Burkett said. "I suspect both sides have that in the back of their minds but they're certainly not ready to go there now. The pressure hasn't built up where either side will go to its worst... there's a process in getting to that deal and that process takes time."

Bob Sokalski, a partner at Hill Sokalski Walsh Trippier LLP in Winnipeg, said the teams of lawyers on both sides are armed with checklists -- immovables, negotiables and throwaways. In order to get the other side to move on a negotiable, it's common to throw them a bone or a "sweetener," he said. "They're still sparring and the sparring will continue until they get into the later rounds and the clock starts to tick. Then you see the whites of their eyes and see who's going to blink, literally and figuratively," he said.

Sokalski said sitting around the negotiating table isn't all that different from sitting around a poker table -- except nobody wears sunglasses. "Lawyers armed with the cards will try to do a little reading," he said. "There's bluffing going on and you're trying to read the other side's body language. You're trying to predict what it is that they really want and what they will give up. You don't want to give up anything that you can hold as a lever too soon."

The backbone of each negotiator is set by how ready, willing and able their members are to fight. And while solidarity is certainly en vogue today, it won't necessarily always be the case. For example, on the owners' side, there are large traditional markets and smaller, non-traditional ones. Across the table, there are players making salaries well into seven figures and others making the league minimum.

"Somebody is going to miss a lunch here somewhere and that's going to diverge with the interests of those who can afford to miss a lunch," he said.

geoff.kirbyson@freepress.mb.ca melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 14, 2012 A7

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