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Zero progress as NHLPA proposals flat-out rejected by owners

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TORONTO -- After a short, non-productive meeting on Thursday that saw three players' proposals shot down, it's becoming crystal clear why the NHL and NHLPA are once again not talking the same language.

The league wants to create a new collective bargaining agreement with a selective memory or no memory at all. It wants to take a few elements of its recent deal with a hard salary cap and some contracting issues and bring them forward into a new, reimagined operation to share hockey revenues with players on an even 50-50 basis, a proposal that sparked some hope on Tuesday.

The recent history to the NHL (even the wild-spending summer just finished) is almost like a burden. Best that most of it is forgotten.

The NHLPA, on the other hand, wears the past like a badge of honour.

The players' side is continually talking about the perceived beating it took in negotiations in 2004-05 -- never mind a 70 per cent increase in the average salary since 2005 -- a dispute that cost an entire season and resulted in the salary cap.

They're adamant they're not going to give in again.

Executive director Don Fehr, in fact, began a speech to reporters on Thursday by rattling off more nine- and 10-digit numbers, citing all the dollar concessions the players have made in the past, and added more losses the players might suffer in possible future scenarios.

Fehr said the players have given back $3.3 billion over the term of the last CBA.

All these numbers are spoken by Fehr and many players in the context of what the players ought to have earned when their share of revenues was 75 per cent, or 57 in the deal that is now expired.

"They don't see any reason to go backwards, to take less (dollars)," Fehr said.

Which side you sympathize with or which side makes more sense is open to debate. What was not was that rhetoric, not bargaining, won the day on Thursday.

Bettman, several executives and owners Ted Leonsis of Washington, Jeremy Jacobs of Boston, Murray Edwards of Calgary and Craig Leipold of Minnesota marched two blocks from NHL headquarters to the NHLPA offices to meet Fehr and his team bolstered by 18 players that included Sidney Crosby, Eric Staal and Winnipeg's Jonathan Toews and then beat a hasty retreat after an hour.

Three ideas players presented were all dismissed by the commissioner.

"All variations of some degree to proposals they made over the summer," Bettman said, even suggesting one version actually gave the players an increased share of revenue (more than 57 per cent) in the first year of an agreement.

"None of the three variations that they gave us even began to approach 50-50, either at all or some long period of time," Bettman said. "It's clear that we're not speaking the same language."

The commissioner added: "I'm obviously very discouraged. I wish I had better news."

Fehr spoke far longer to reporters, beginning with a 16-minute speech making the players' case.

"Today is not a good day," he said. "It should have been."

Fehr said the quick dismissal on Thursday was disappointing.

"If you had been in the room, the vibe you would have gotten was that unless you're prepared to sign (Tuesday's NHL offer) for very minor variations, don't bother us," he said.

Fehr even took a veiled shot at some NHL owners for following the summer spending spree with their latest offer demanding the players take less.

"It's exactly contrary to what teams were doing all summer, including by owners who were at the bargaining table (today)," he said.

But while Bettman suggested more game cancellations are just around the corner, Fehr was far less ominous in his disappointment.

"I've been around this block long enough to know that anything can happen in bargaining," he said. "When somebody takes a hard stand like the owners have taken, you have to assume they mean it and you go from there.

"It doesn't mean you make an agreement which is not in the interest or consistent with the desires of the players. I had hoped the approaches we had taken today would put us within range.

"We're available to continue negotiating. We're going to have to continue negotiating, whether it's tomorrow, the next day or next week, until eventually the opportunity arises to make an agreement."

Sounds easy, once the language issues of past, present and future are sorted out.

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 19, 2012 C1

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