NHL

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Negotiations approaching most critical stage to date

Real movement required to save an NHL season

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Silence could be the best sign of all over the next few days as we reach a critical juncture in the $3.3 billion tug-of-war the NHL and its players are waging.

Hopefully, players' association boss Don Fehr walks by the assembled media in New York this afternoon and offers little comment. Same goes for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. That would be the most telling sign of all and would likely signal NHL hockey is on the road to a return.

If Fehr ambles up to the notepads and TV cameras and unloads for 15 minutes on the unscrupulous nature of the NHL and its owners, the little hope that flourished this weekend can be considered crushed. Should Bettman take time to explain his disappointment in the lack of progress in talks -- cue up your most ominous soundtrack.

The NHL was saying very little to reporters on Monday about today's meeting. Mixed messages were coming out of the offices, with several hints that media were less than welcome in New York at the negotiating session.

But the NHLPA was slightly warmer, sending out the message that yes, Fehr would talk after the meeting but if things went well he would have very little to say.

Here's hoping Fehr gives us the Heisman this afternoon.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly and NHLPA special counsel Steve Fehr spent the weekend holed up in an undisclosed location having informal talks. They emerged with enough positives to suggest a larger meeting with both negotiation teams present to further discuss the concepts bounced around by the top lieutenants.

The players had a conference call late Monday afternoon to get an update on what Daly and Steve Fehr had discussed. There were also rumblings about the players putting a new offer on the table.

How either side responds to today's talks will be represented by Don Fehr's level of communication.

Predicting the next act in any negotiation is a bit of a fool's game. The whole idea is to keep the other side from knowing what you're thinking. And it's not like televised poker, where the viewer can see what cards the players are holding.

Time, it seems, is all of a sudden important. Bettman is feeling pressure to get a deal done from both the moderates and hawks among his bosses.

Union boss Fehr has reportedly been hearing more noise from his players to get back to the negotiating table.

The men in charge, Bettman and Fehr, appear impervious on the surface. They are card sharks, for sure. But they have bosses. They don't own the chips. They may have interim charge of the stake, but it can be pulled at any moment.

The players want to play but not for a "crap deal," as one player told me Monday. They want Fehr talking and trying to get them the best cut he can. It's not lost on the players that the two sides appear to be close and the practical side of their minds has to be sniping at the philosophical.

There's a lot of money to be lost if there are no games this season and the players have to be feeling some internal heat. One can have principles but it's a little easier when they don't cost millions to support.

Bettman understands the longer this impasse goes the harder it will be for him to bring an acceptable deal to the owners. Already there is talk it would be better to sit out this year and try to carve out an entirely new agreement. They're already paying for a deal. Why not pay a little more and get the one they want?

Bettman works for the owners but he's a powerful voice and he doesn't want another lost season on his hands. Maybe more than anyone, Bettman wants to get a deal done. But he's running out of time.

Once ownership's resolve hardens, there will be no talking with them. We know this. We've seen it before.

So, while you've heard this many times before, this week is critical. If we are to have any semblance of a meaningful NHL season, real movement must transpire almost immediately.

So here's to hoping for crappy quotes. It may not be a reporter's dream but it sure will make the fans happy.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

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

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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 www.winnipegfreepress.com
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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