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Friday, November 9, 2012
These talks will define Bettman and Fehr

By Scott Burnside



As the two warring sides re-entered conference rooms on Friday, the fourth straight day of negotiations, in a no-longer-secret location in Manhattan, it struck us that for two groups that have suffered varying crises of leadership, this is where the rubber meets the road.

The road to where? Oblivion? Redemption?

Neither NHL commissioner Gary Bettman nor NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr has distinguished himself thus far in terms of charting a course to a successful resolution to the current lockout of the NHL’s players.

Strategies on both sides have been at best curious and at worst deeply flawed.

Were it not so, wouldn’t we have had a deal weeks, even months ago? Or at the very least, had leadership plotted differently, would we not have seen the current series of in-depth talks, the first of their kind in the process, take place long ago?

There is no shortage of critics of both men, and all you need to do is take a passing glance at Twitter to get a sense of the underlying anger and disappointment at how this has unfolded.

Without going over every burp and hiccup along the way -- and there have been many ominous noises emanating from both sides in this tedious process -- only the significantly brainwashed believe that blame for the current situation lies more squarely on one side than the other.

What should be of greater import is how much damage has been done to the sport and how that damage can be repaired.

Those ideas of damage and damage control may be a bit vague, but there is nothing vague about the answers, and they lie firmly in the hands of Fehr and Bettman.

They are the ones who have the power to keep the process moving, to keep it on track. Or the power to take the air out of not just these talks but any chance at a season at all.

No one suggests Fehr and Bettman have to like each other. The players who are in attendance don’t have to like the owners or deputy commissioner Bill Daly. But they have to be able to put all the rhetoric and spin and hurt feelings behind them and stay on point.

It can't be just one side that displays this willingness, or the process will fall apart. Both sides have to have that kind of resolve.

This week has shown, at least for now, that such will exists.

Our lockout crew in New York, Katie Strang and Pierre LeBrun, have reported that the two sides aren’t on the verge of a deal, and in fact, there has been some disappointment on both sides as proposals have led to counterproposals leading to Friday’s multitiered discussions.

But they continue to meet.

The two sides continue to say little about the current state of negotiations, holding their tongues about why they believe the other side is wrong-headed or stubborn or worse.

That is no small thing if you’ve followed even a small part of this labor dispute.

Even a leaked memo from Fehr to the players, first obtained by TSN’s Darren Dreger, outlined concerns with the owners’ response to their offerings, but the language was for the most part neutral, stripped clean of rhetoric.

So kudos to Fehr and Bettman and the rest of those at the tables Friday for channeling whatever emotions might be coursing through them in a direction other than the one that says "detonation this way."

These are the moments that will define this labor dispute, will determine whether there is hockey and how much hockey this season. By extension, these moments will define the leadership of Fehr and Bettman.

There is still enough time to play a meaningful number of games and try to get the game back on a track to prosperity. But it will take continued patience and resolve from the leadership on both sides, the kind of resolve that has been noticeably lacking to this point.

To this point.