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NHL CBA standoff hints at nuclear winter

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said he has unanimous lockout support from the owners, who remained unseen after their meeting but in a hardline stance that may well get harder during a prolonged stoppage. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

By Stu Hackel

Don Fehr stood with 283 of his closest friends. Gary Bettman stood alone.

A never-ending line of NHL players filed into the conference room like a Midwestern freight train that keeps you parked at a railway crossing for half an hour. About 30 of them walked on stage -- Zdeno Chara stood behind Sidney Crosby and you could really see how huge Chara is -- while another 250 stood off to the side. Fehr joined them and, in the same way that a tough guy on your team will make everyone play bigger, the impressive show of support made the NHLPA leader seem nearly as big as Chara.

A little later and several blocks away, Bettman walked into a much smaller room and stood alone at a black podium in front of a black backdrop that each had a lone NHL crest on it. He's not a tall man to begin with and standing by himself didn't make him appear any larger.

However, as bracing as the contrast between these two sights was, the bottom line remained unchanged: We're still looking at an NHL lockout when Sunday rolls around.

It was a noteworthy pair of events on Thursday in New York, with the NHLPA wrapping up two days of meetings while the NHL Board of Governors gathered at another midtown hotel close by. In dueling news conferences, each side made its case, and each side sounded convincing. A number of my fellow journalists with whom I attended agreed: You listen to Fehr speak about why his membership feels the league's offer is not fair and what he says makes a lot of sense. Then you walk uptown three blocks and listen to Bettman throw out a blizzard of numbers that lays out the owners' case and he makes compelling points, too. If nothing else, you must conclude that each side has good leadership (and that's the point of this recommended story by Dave Naylor on TSN.ca).

But, there is something else: Even putting the economics aside for a moment, there are significant points of differentiation and they can't be ignored. First, the players are willing to report to training camp, play the schedule and continue to negotiate. They make the case that the lockout would be a choice made by ownership, not something they must do. Bettman's position is that the owners won't operate even one extra day under the terms of the old agreement. He continually insists -- and says he has insisted to Fehr for months -- that the union will be locked out if no new deal is reached by 11:59 PM Saturday.

The owners may believe that their stance is necessary because they suspect that if they start the season and negotiations drag, the players will strike. It seems more as if they are trying to train a dog to heel. The fact is that the threat of a lockout has been hovering over these talks from the outset and this league for at least a year, long before anyone slid a formal proposal across a table to the other side. It's not a new development and it doesn't create the kind of atmosphere that's conducive to forging a deal, at least not one that purports to be fair to both sides.

And that leads to the second point of differentiation: How fair is what the owners have proposed to the players? Fehr emphasized that in his remarks to the media.

He said, "I was asked the following question by the players a lot yesterday and it came up today and it's the most obvious question when you look at the (owners') proposal that is in front of us, which is, 'What's in this for the players?' What do they get out of this agreement? In the last agreement, there was at least significant movement in the player's direction on the player contracting issues, things like salary arbitration and free agency. But what's on the table now appears to say we have to have the salary concessions all over again, plus, we have to go in the owners' direction on all the player contracting issues and undo all that portion of the last agreement, either. Less money, fewer rights."

"I think everybody understands why the owners would like that; every employer would like that. I have a more difficult time understanding why anybody would expect the players to make an agreement on that basis."

Bettman was asked in his press briefing to comment on Fehr's formulation of "Less money, fewer rights."

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He responded, "I didn't hear his press conference, I was in a board meeting, so I don't think it's constructive to comment on something I didn't hear myself. But if that's what he said, that's what he said. Obviously, we're going to disagree on lots of things."

For once, it wasn't a satisfactory answer by Bettman, who can be quite thorough in his responses. It was a dodge of what the players consider a very key point. What inducement do they have to accept ownership's proposal? If you want to conclude a successful negotiation, especially one where you are asking for significant concessions, it is wise to at least offer the other side something. If Bettman disagrees with Fehr on this and believes the owners are offering the players something, I don't think anyone -- especially the players -- knows what it is.

The sides have widely different approaches to a new CBA and vastly different interpretations of each other's arithmetic. But the distinct impression one gets from these two main non-economic points of differentiation -- the continual threat of a lockout and the absence of any concessions to the players -- is that the owners may not really want to make a deal other than one that is entirely favorable to them. It's worth asking, at what point does hard bargaining becomes no bargaining?

The owners have some very real-world concerns about the health of some franchises and they may believe that the only solution is to cut players' salaries (or it could also be, as my SI.com confrere Al Muir wrote Thursday, "They're looking for a cash grab because, well, the NBA and NFL got sweet new deals, so they want one, too;" you can decide for yourself which you believe -- and maybe it's both). But a unilateral approach to bargaining isn't likely to work. What it will do is inflict damage everywhere -- to players, to fans, to the game and even to the owners themselves and their ability to grow the business, which until now had been progressing in a truly impressive fashion since the last lockout.

Asking for the moon and the stars and now only revising the request by cutting out some constellations is designed to do one thing: Get the players to fold. The league has already circulated the word that once the players miss eight regular season games, they will have forfeited the same amount of pay that they'll lose if they accept the owners' latest proposal. Waiting the players out worked in 2004-05 and a lot of observers are convinced that's how things will go this time.

You didn't get that impression while talking with players yesterday. I asked Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson, who was an NHLPA VP for the last lockout, how the union is different now. He had strong praise for Fehr's leadership, his involving more players in decisions and discussion, his efforts to educate them about the issues. I overheard another player telling a reporter how last time, players would come to a meeting like this and it would be the first time they'd hear about the issues. Fehr's travels have resulted in numerous previous meetings and discussions and, the player said, everyone now is thoroughly familiar with the issues and the negotiations. So this time may be different.

A number of players also believe that the unity of ownership is not as solid as last time. TSN's Bob McKenzie said he's heard players contend that as many as 15 or 20 clubs really want to start the season on time. It seems hard to fathom, although it's impossible to know with Bettman tightly controlling communications. But some of the players think it's so and they're now banking on ownership folding.

Speaking Friday morning on Montreal's TSN Radio 690 (formerly TSN 990, formerly Team 990 -- that great radio station has had almost as many identity changes as Bob Dylan), McKenzie told Morning Show hosts Elliot Price, Shawn Starr and Ted Bird that there is also an overwhelming feeling among the players that they gave up a lot to ownership last time and they're not going to do it again. He spoke of Aaron Ward, now his TSN colleague, who went through the last lockout and lost his $2 million salary.

McKenzie relayed Ward's thoughts on player unity: "He said, 'As a player, you know this is going on and you see your season flashing before your eyes and you're about to lose all your money, you just suck it up and you say, you know what? Guys did it in '95, guys did it in 2005 and now it's my turn. It's a generational thing. It's one of the crosses you bear for being part of the NHLPA and being paid the money you do, and every so often you have to go fight with the owners and you give things up for the sake of the players' unity and the Players Association.' And so you just do it because that's what hockey players do. It's almost like being part of a team and being told you got to get up there and block shots on penalties and you don't get any glory for it. That's kind of the mentality the players have now."

Whether they'll still have that mentality in a month, or two months, is the big question.

By then, however, things will be dire all over, not just among the players. And Bettman has said the offers by ownership will get worse, not better, once the lockout starts. Yesterday, Fehr would not rule out a stiffening of the players' position as well, including calling for the elimination of the salary cap (ESPN's Pierre LeBrun has more on that here), which -- as we've discussed before -- he is philosophically against, and probably has the players thinking that way, too.

Asked what he thought of the players putting the cap back on the table, Bettman responded, "That certainly wouldn't be a positive development in these negotiations."

It's not even autumn yet, but we're already getting a glimpse of hockey's nuclear winter.

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