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NHL in dire need of labor relations fix

Gary Bettman Gary Bettman says he's pleased to with an "ongoing process" that he and the team owners have often torpedoed. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

By Stu Hackel

For the third straight day, representatives of the NHL owners and players reconvened on Wednesday as the NHLPA responded to the league's most recent proposal, which it received on Tuesday. With the January 11 deal deadline for a reduced 48-game season fast approaching, real, honest, serious negotiations seem to be taking place at last. More are scheduled for Thursday.

UPDATE: The NHLPA made a counter-proposal to the NHL's Tuesday offer, itself a counter-proposal and the sides met again Wednesday evening to discuss it. There appears to be general agreement on the length of the CBA at 10 years, with an opt-out at eight, a concession by the players, but there are reports the players want some additional stipulations included. There are also reports that the players may agree to the six-year limit on contracts, seven for players re-signing with their own clubs -- another concession by the union -- but in return they still want pay to vary by 10 percent annually rather than the NHL's five percent offer. 

None of these reports are confirmed and the lack of leaks on both sides would seem to suggest that they are seriously trying to bridge the gap in order to start a 48-game season before Jan. 19. Other important items remain unsettled and one is the salary cap, which the owners want reduced to $60 million annually. The players have reportedly not agreed (and we discussed that provision earlier this week). Another is the size of escrow. Additionally, there are new concerns about the players' pension plan, which had supposedly been agreed to earlier in the talks but may have been changed in the owners' proposal. Pat Leonard of The New York Daily News has more on the pension issue here. There is some feeling among the players that ownership has reneged on this item.

There have been very few details on this round of talks, which is seen as a good sign because leaks usually mean discord. The players still had the option until midnight of disclaiming interest in the NHLPA through the union's executive committee, the quick route to decertification that could throw the process into chaos, if they believe the owners are not negotiating in good faith. On Twitter, ESPN/ TSN's Pierre LeBrun quoted a player saying, "How they respond to our latest proposal will determine if we disclaim or not." Even though that option expires at the end of the day, the players could renew that initiative sometime in the future. More on this latest round of talks here from TSN.ca.

UPDATE: The union decided to hold off on the disclaimer. More on that fromTSN.ca.

If you are wondering why a sudden wave of sincerity has washed over the process, which is now beginning its sixth month, you are not alone. These latest talks -- which have resulted in three proposals being swapped in six days (UPDATE: now four in seven days) -- could and should have taken place months ago had there not been another agenda floating around besides that of getting a fair and equitable agreement.

Instead, the talks have had almost as many starts and stops as a Herb Brooks skating drill. On no fewer than eight occasions since late August, the owners unilaterally suspended negotiations, often for weeks at a time. Yes, the players have also stalled, especially at the outset when they were not prepared to begin negotiations until last summer, and then took a month to formulate a counter-offer to the owners' first proposal that was so severe it was characterized by some as a "declaration of war." But even during that month, the players kept the dialogue going largely with talks about secondary issues. During each subsequent stoppage, NHLPA Executive Director Don Fehr inevitably uttered words to the effect of, "We'd rather be talking. You can't reach an agreement by not talking."

So as Commissioner Gary Bettman summed up Tuesday's talks to the media...

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...it was more than mildly disconcerting to hear him say, “The fact that we’re involved in a continuous process is something that I’m glad to see."

Excuse me, Mr. Commissioner, but it was your side that regularly halted any continuous process.

Now, the owners had their reasons for preventing talks from developing momentum. They were testing the players' solidarity -- and were hardly covert about it, often brazenly trying to subvert the union's leadership by detaching the players from Fehr. That tactic had worked during the lost season of 2004-05, so why not try it again?

After a few attempts, however, it should have been obvious that the owners were fighting the current war by using tactics from the last. Like the Washington Capitals under Bruce Boudreau, tactical flexibility among the owners was in short supply and whatever intelligence the league had collected on the manner in which the NHLPA had reorganized was flawed. Don Fehr is unlike any foe the NHL owners have ever encountered, a fact that went unrecognized by whoever was driving the lockout bus. Eventually, they should have steered away from all their divide-and-conquer stalling tactics, each designed to make the players miss paychecks, weaken their resolve, and get them to accept proposals that were always portrayed as "the best we can do" when, in fact -- as Fehr told his troops -- there were always better offers waiting down the road after each intermission. The more the league schemed, the more unified the players became.

This was a major miscalculation by ownership, one of many in this lockout, and it revealed the bankruptcy of the National Hockey League's preferred approach to labor relations: confrontation rather than negotiation. Even New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, concerned about the lockout's impact on Newark, remarked about the NHL late last month, “When you can’t have a good relationship with your folks, your labor, three times in a row now, to the point where you lose most of or entire seasons, it reflects I think on management. I mean, listen, I worked it out with state workers, they come to work every day.”

Not in the NHL. Once again, no one comes to work but the lawyers. The owners' methods have cost everyone connected with the game, including themselves, whatever might have been gained from the first three months of the season, both financially and in the court of public opinion. Only a half-year ago, the NHL was again being hailed as an up-and-coming success story -- and we have heard that often in the past 45 years. Now, the league has reverted to its self-destructive nature, also a common theme during the past four-and-a-half decades.

Clearly, when this lockout ends, the time will have come for the owners to contemplate charting a new course in the way they deal with their players. No doubt the owners had some problems with this last CBA, but their way of fixing things doesn't work. In his interesting story on Fehr for The San Jose Mercury News, David Pollak quoted former Major League Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent, who knows Fehr well and understands the need for the NHL to make that shift. Calling his dealings with Fehr "first-rate," Vincent added, "The insight that everybody comes to ultimately is that without the players there is no game. And you can fight with them only so long because you can't get along without them. If you ever want to have a game and you're an owner, you have to give them their way."

"Giving them their way," may be too extreme a solution, but the NHL way -- continual warfare -- is a dead end. It may be hard for the NHL owners to find a less damaging approach, but they must. For all their talk of partnership over the years, they have always operated according to a very different standard, the one articulated by Red Wings vice president Jim Devellano during the interview last September that got his club fined $250,000: "The owners simply aren’t going to let a union push them around. It’s not going to happen.”

What shouldn't happen is for the NHL to extend its antagonism toward the players any further. Even if this next CBA goes into effect for eight or 10 years, depending on how the final document is written, its conclusion should not be the excuse for yet another lockout, another suicidal chapter in the league's history. It's time to figure out how to turn the page on this nonsense, once and for all.

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