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UPDATED: Toxic atmosphere engulfs CBA talks, then subsides

Chris Phillips Senators blueliner Chris Phillips says the NHL tried to pull a couple of "dirty tricks" on the players. (Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

By Stu Hackel

We're updating this blog post throughout the weekend with major developments, so check back every so often.

We wrote earlier this week that the time has come for a change in the way in which the league handles its labor relations, that it has been too confrontational and combative for too long and no good can come from that. What is -- and isn't -- going on in these CBA negotiations demonstrates the bankruptcy of the NHL's way of doing business with its players.

UPDATE (Sat. 4:45 PM): A cautious, tentative optimism has replaced the angry mood that marked the talks heading into the weekend. It appears that as a result of discussions late Friday and today (Saturday), the league and players are starting to melt both their bargaining gap and their frosty relations. Various source have said that while the outstanding issues -- including the salary cap for next season, the maximum length of individual contacts, the player pension and the term of the CBA itself --  have not been resolved, the sides are moving somewhat closer to each other.

Whatever progress has been made -- and that is still up in the air -- a good deal of the credit has to go to Beckenbaugh, who has diligently kept at it to the point where negotiators have again been meeting face-to-face on Saturday afternoon at the NHLPA's midtown Manhattan hotel. Beckenbaugh's mediation is not the only factor, of course.

Another significant impetus certainly has to be the NHLPA's vote to re-institute the right of their executive committee to disclaim interest. That vote concludes at 6 PM and it is a certainty the membership will grant that right, which has given the players some leverage since the threat of dissolving the union could potentially lead to anti-trust litigation against the owners -- and treble damages if a court found in the players' favor. Whether or not the PA uses this weapon is an open question, and it it very much contingent on how much real progress has been made in the talks.

A third reason for a different mood on Saturday is that both sides do want the season to go forward. The owners want to reopen for business (especially those who have paid huge guaranteed signing bonuses to players but have not had any income to offset them) and players want to play and stop missing paychecks. It has been said by the league that the deadline to get a deal done is the end of next week, although we've seen deadlines move before. During the lockout of '94 it happened often.

The caution comes in because we've seem progress before come to a screeching halt numerous times over the last few months. Will more lines be drawn in the sand? Does more brinksmanship await? That's been the nature of these talks and no one should be surprised if it happens again. As The Sporting News Jesse Spector tweeted, "Are the NHL and NHLPA close to a deal? Absolutely. This was also true Wednesday. And last month."

And how much real progress is being made is still uncertain. Kevin Paul Dupont of The Boston Globe tweeted, "Agent: 'Ways to go. League leaking info to up pressure on players.'" Multiple reports have said NHL sources were expressing a bit more optimism than NHLPA sources. Andrew Gross of The Bergen Record tweeted, "Another source counters optimism, saying things were not so upbeat around NHLPA earlier today doesn't discount use of disclaimer of interest"

There have been reports that the lockout is actually over, but they have been shot down. Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told David Pagnotta of The Fourth Period the reports an agreement had been concluded were "not true."

Here's the latest video report from TSN.

There were reports the sides might meet face-to-face Friday evening but nothing was set. They didn't gather on Friday morning or afternoon in the league's New York offices, but instead engaged in "shuttle mediation." The players remained in their midtown New York hotel and Federal Mediator Scot Beckenbaugh moved between there and the NHL office in an effort to soothe a fractious environment and resume closing the gaps in the bargaining positions.

UPDATE (Fri. 11:15 PM): The sides never met face to face, but Beckenbaugh continued to shuttle between the NHL office and the NHLPA's hotel until about 10:30 PM, meaning he was at it for over 12 hours. "Mediation was positive overall today," tweeted RDS's Renaud Lavoie. "At the same time, all people I talked too were cautiously optimistic." For the moment, the temperature seems to have been lowered. The process will resume with the mediator Saturday morning, although eventually the league and players will have to get back together in the same room.

As we pointed out on Thursday, the mistrust level between the players and owners has flared up again, at a crucial moment when work needs to go forward in order to ensure that there will be a season. The latest clash is the result of league negotiators apparently altering the proposal they submitted to the players.  What had been previously agreed upon was altered. In one change, they removed the penalties the league would dole out to clubs that misreported Hockey Related Revenue, the shared pool of money from which player salaries are derived. Hiding HRR should be a serious matter deserving of punishment, but when the PA's lawyers realized that the language had been changed to eliminate any penalties, a new level of sourness descended on the negotiations. The players had previously detected the league negotiators altering the understanding that the sides had reached on pensions.

Once again, after progress had been made in this long slog to a new CBA, things ground to a halt, which is how these talks have gone for months.

“Negotiations were going well, we chose not to disclaim (as a union) and they turned around and pulled a couple of dirty tricks that upset a lot of us, so now we’re back to where we were in terms of having votes,” Chris Phillips, the Senators’ player representative, told Ken Warren of The Ottawa Citizen on Friday. “They changed the definition that basically there would be no accountability in terms of HRR accounting, so they could basically give us any number they wanted to…so, it’s great that we’re at 50/50 now, but it’s 50/50 of what? That’s just ridiculous. We’re trying to get a deal done and negotiate in good faith and (if there’s) garbage like that, that’s not going to get anything done.

“I just told the guys that this is worse than any part of the negotiating process,” he said. “I don’t understand it at all. The numbers are what they are, but this deal has all been about how much we’re going to give up, not what we’re going to get, and to go to their numbers and then for them to turn around and fudge what the numbers are going to be. It’s just ridiculous, expecting to get a deal done with these people that are trying to pull the wool over your eyes.”

Phillips wasn't buying the league’s explanation that the omission was merely an honest mistake.

“I don’t know if they were hoping we weren’t going to pick up on it or what, but I don’t know what the right word is…I’m appalled that they would try to get something like that in there under the system we have. I know they’ve said that it was a mistake and (the previous definition of HRR) is back in there, but I don’t know how it’s a mistake when you take something out. I can see it being a mistake if you were supposed to take something out and didn’t. When you go and change the wording, it’s obviously something done purposely.”

Canadiens defenseman Josh Gorges told TSN (video), "Tying to slide something in there on us like that is a pretty sneaky move and it doesn't do anything to benefit the process. It's hard to negotiate when someone is trying to do something like that."

This isn't just a theoretical discussion. As Elliotte Friedman of CBC recalled, the league and players disagreed in 2011 on the amount of revenue reported by two NHL clubs, Washington and Nashville.

One hopes with their venting done, the players have shifted their focus to whatever it takes to get a fair and equitable deal. But it seems they will have the weapon of the disclaimer of interest threat once again before the weekend concludes. The PA continued their 48-hour vote to reinstate the right of the union's executive to disclaim interest, a process that will conclude on Saturday afternoon. Don Fehr could have pulled the trigger on the disclaimer Wednesday but did not.

"It wasn’t long before word filtered out of the players’ ranks that the tone of (Gary) Bettman and his negotiating team changed once the threat of a disclaimer was gone," wrote David Shoalts in The Globe and Mail. "Intransigence was back. The talks quickly broke down early Thursday morning."

Now, there is concern that the union will pursue the matter and what that means in the long run is anyone's guess. In the short term, the union sees it as a tool to get the league more cooperative at the bargaining table. Josh Gorges reflected both the distrust and was somewhat perplexed when he explained to Sportsnet on Friday why the union once again seeks the disclaimer.

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“At the start of this whole process," he said, "it was all about money. They said they weren't making enough money, the players were making too much, so we came to 50-50. That's what they wanted; they got it. They've had it for about a month now. So what's this about? It can’t be about money. Is it about power? Is about them not wanting to show that they can give into us, that they can give us a little bit? Even if they agreed to all the things we're asking for in this last bit of negotiations, it’s still a concession by the players. It’s not a concession by the owners. So I don't understand what they want from us and how we're supposed to move any more toward getting a deal done if they don't want to give a little.”

In truth, the owners have moved on some issues. For example, they had sought a contract variance of only five percent per year to prevent backdiving deals that circumvent the CBA. The players wanted 25 percent and now it seems they have agreed on 20 percent. They are still apart, however, on other key matters -- the salary cap and the length of individual player contracts among them.

Mediation on Friday may have helped soften the stances. We'll see, as we head into another action packed weekend of negotiations.

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