Bettman's return to form is a good sign

NEW YORK -- If there is one moment that captured the NHL lockout and all its foolishness, it was the tortured visage of commissioner Gary Bettman a little more than three weeks ago here.

On that night, with talks hitting the rocks after a brief spasm of optimism, the commissioner was red-faced and out of sorts. Normally so sure with his words, he struggled to contain his anger and to stay on point.

It was a shocking departure from the normally self-controlled, precise Gary Bettman that often makes reporters (OK, and some players and fans) groan.

That was the Gary Bettman who appeared outside the NHL offices Monday night, and if there is to be hockey this season, it must be this Gary Bettman who remains at the helm of the owners’ side.

Against a backdrop of curious early New Year’s Eve revelers en route to Times Square, honking horns and sirens on the Avenue of the Americas, Bettman was once again cautious and circumspect in describing almost three hours of discussion on the owners’ latest proposal.

Those discussions led to internal meetings of league officials that were expected to last most of the night and to lead to further negotiations with the players’ association on New Year’s Day.

“We spent a good part of the afternoon with the players' association. They were responding to the proposal we made Thursday, and their response was a comprehensive one, dealing with a full slate of issues that we raised and proposals that we put forth, and we’re in the process of reviewing their response," Bettman said. "We’re going to do that tonight, and our expectation is that we’ll contact them [Tuesday] morning and arrange to get back together, hopefully, certainly, by midday. We’re going to try and turn this around overnight so we can continue the process."

Pressed to characterize the talks or to quantify any progress that has been made, Bettman wouldn’t bite.

“I think it would be premature for me to characterize it and not particularly helpful to the process,” he said. "We really need the time to go through it and that’s something I said we’ll do, turn this around overnight."

Since this process began, it hasn’t taken long for details of every proposal and counterproposal to leak out into the public domain.

Having a transparent process is never a bad thing but often the leaks were meant to reinforce one party’s position over another or to buttress one side’s argument that the other side was made up of intransigent dolts bent on ruining a season and the game.

During the famous Meltdown in Manhattan earlier in December, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, flanked by some of the game’s most influential players, including Sidney Crosby, told reporters the players felt they were very close to a deal. But a short while later Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly, both clearly angered at Fehr’s characterization of the process, insisted the opposite was true.

On Monday, though, both Bettman and Fehr were controlled, divulging little.

It might be an oversimplification, but it appears the less that gets said publicly about the how these talks are progressing, it seems the more work gets done.

If that is true, then perhaps we are truly in the home stretch toward getting a deal done that would see hockey return in about two weeks.

Bettman reiterated that Jan. 19 would be the latest possible day to start a 48-game season, the minimum the commissioner said he felt was realistic.

Things could still go off the rails, of course, this being the National Hockey League after all. But one has to imagine that if they were going to go kablooey, it would have happened on Monday.

But given the comments from both Bettman and Fehr, it seems clear that the players’ response to the owners’ proposal was to build on that document. There were questions, of course, and the players have issues with a number of the elements of the owners’ proposal, like a decline in the salary cap from a prorated $70.2 million this season to $60 million next season.

But it doesn’t appear, at least on the surface, that the players followed an earlier pattern of either ignoring league proposals or, as was the case earlier here, introducing new elements like rules governing transition.

Asked if the players had moved off their last proposal, one that was quickly dismissed by the owners, Fehr said they had but would not go into detail.

“The purpose of the discussion was for us to respond, for them to ask a couple questions and for us to explain some points we made,” Fehr added. “If they have further questions tonight, it wouldn’t surprise me.”

Whether Tuesday begets another step toward a deal or not is anyone’s guess.

The players have a self-imposed Jan. 2 deadline to file a disclaimer of interest that would dissolve the union and set up the possibility of antitrust lawsuits in the United States. If the deadline passes, it doesn’t mean the union can’t file at a later date, but they would simply have to vote again to do so.

“The players retain all the legal options they always had. Those things are internal matters we don’t discuss,” Fehr said.

Who knows, if the two leaders continue to keep their game faces on, maybe the deadline will be moot.