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NHL season hostage to power struggles

Billy Daly and Gary Bettman Possible fallout from last week's collapse in the CBA talks is that if they resume, Commissioner Gary Bettman and his deputy, Bill Daly, will go back to doing the bidding of the league's most hardline team owners (Mary Altaffer/AP)

By Stu Hackel

In the early afternoon on Monday, Lockout Day 86, Gary Bettman opened his jar of vanishing cream, rubbed it on the schedule pages in The NHL Guide and Record Book and made another chunk of games disappear.

The on-again, off again CBA negotiations are currently off. There's a chance that the switch may be flipped back to on later this week because best buds Bill Daly and Steve Fehr resumed speaking over the weekend. This all follows last Thursday's explosive theatrics, which Bruce Arthur of The National Post described on TSN's Reporters show (video) as, "Gary Bettman treating a media conference like a therapist couch."

"It was remarkable watching Gary Bettman in that situation," seconded Michael Farber. "He was like Captain Queeg. He was missing the steel balls, but we have never seen Bettman that emotional and on the edge." (And for those of you who are not familiar with Michael's cinematic reference to Humphrey Bogart's portrayal of a Naval officer melting down on the witness stand in The Caine Mutiny, here it is.)

Bettman's rant was triggered by NHLPA Executive Director Don Fehr's contention that the two sides were fairly close to a deal. Bettman may have exaggerated how close Fehr said a deal was, but that didn't stop Fehr from repeating his belief to reporters on Saturday.

"All I can tell you is there had been some movement, we responded with some movement, we think we're done on the dollars or very close to it with the exception of one issues called 'transition' that we haven't even discussed yet, and that it seemed to me we ought to be able to move forward and try to finish it off. So far, at least, they have not indicated a willingness to continue discussions," he said after a well-received speech at the Canadian Auto Workers convention in Toronto (video).

Over the weekend, we discussed a number of potential plot lines for the negotiations, but the key to whether Fehr's optimism becomes reality has less to do with the players' desire to get an agreement than with what set of ideas the owners will bring to the table if and when the talks restart. If the league's agenda has been reclaimed by the hardliners led by Boston's Jeremy Jacobs, you'd have to think that there's little chance of any compromises. If the ideas put forward by the "moderates" during last week's talks can be revived, there's some hope that we'll see an NHL season, or at least a shortened version of one.

When things broke down last week -- and they ostensibly broke down over stands the owners took on issues they say they won't budge off, but that the players wanted to negotiate -- the league removed everything from the table that had brought the sides close. So unless those things get put back on the table, this process is going nowhere. And, as we discussed over the weekend, if the owners have made one of their focal points an attempt to remove Don Fehr from the process -- a scenario that more and more observers, like Pat Leonard in The New York Daily News, believe is part of the league's endgame -- it really is going nowhere.

One of the crucial items that remains unsettled is the proposed length of contracts, which is designed to prevent circumvention of the salary cap. The owners want to limit deals to five years (with the ability to re-sign their own players for seven years) with a five percent variance in pay from one year to the next. The players, who previously enjoyed no limits, are willing to settle for eight years and a 25 percent variance. Here's a very good breakdown of that issue from Adam Gertz of CBSSports.com. This is the issue that Daly called "the hill we will die on." You can decide for yourself if you believe this is an issue worth losing a season over or if there is room for further compromise.

The process by which the "moderates" among the owners took center stage has yet to be fully explained, but Bob Rossi of The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, who was aware of this development before anyone in the media, revealed some of the background over the weekend. We wondered last week how much the sea change in the talks was owed to the influence of Penguins co-owner Mario Lemieux, and whether he engaged in some quiet lobbying among his influential friends in the game prior to Tuesday's talks to get the season going. Rossi confirms that's just what happened.

The unknown now is whether Mario and friends have backed away or been turned off by last week's events and, should they still feel they can salvage something of a season, whether their voices have been shut down by less agreeable owners and can still play an important role in brokering a deal. Chris Johnson of Canadian Press tweeted Monday, "Sidney Crosby says he won't be part of CBA talks when they resume. It sounds like Burkle/Vinik/Tanenbaum/Chipman won't either." If talks resume without any other "moderates" involved, the prospects for a quick settlement won't be good.

"So that’s where we are," Jeff Blair wrote in a sharply worded Globe and Mail piece."Ownership still testing the players’ resolve, making behind-the-scenes approaches to orchestrate a rebellion against Fehr while doing things they swore they’d never do and make changes to their last-ever, final, not-to-be-tinkered-with, best offer; players well aware that they can keep the owners chestnuts roasting on an open fire for three more weeks or so before the doomsday clock really starts ticking."

Meanwhile, the world goes on without the self-destructive NHL as arena workers and others whose livelihoods are contingent on games being played have their already had their limited incomes further diminished. The NHL's referees and linesmen are not being paid at all. There's not much they can do about it.

Fans, however, continue to express their opposition and frustration. We wrote about their rising level of anger and their calls for boycotts last month. Another attempt has emerged, led by Steve Chase, a Montreal-born California hockey fan who makes commercials and has produced this new one for his "Just Drop It" effort.

He's also got a Facebook page, which reads, "By clicking 'like,' I pledge that for every game you take from me after December 21st, 2012, I will boycott you for the equivalent number of games after the lockout ends." Ten games missed, 10-games of boycott. Twenty games missed, a 20-game boycott. Over 4,100 fans had taken the pledge as of Monday morning. And that, to the Drop The Puck group, means they'll spend no money on anything related to the NHL.

"Perhaps they'll find this movement amusing," one of the characters in the spot says, "but they'd be wise not to underestimate us."

The Monday announcement that makes more games vanish triggered the pledge and those who took it now start counting the days.

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