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Thursday, November 22, 2012
Tune out the noise, we're closer to a deal

By Pierre LeBrun


Ah, Thanksgiving Thursday in the U.S.

A chance for the NHL and NHL Players’ Association to take a deep breath and exhale after all the drama that ensued Wednesday on the labor front.

For all the rhetoric and posturing from both sides Wednesday, and the anger belted out on Twitter by players, the reality is that both sides are closer to a deal now thanks to the NHLPA’s newest proposal.

A lot closer? No. But closer nonetheless.

That might come as a shock to the players inside the bargaining room Wednesday who saw the NHL shred many elements of it, leaving them red-faced as they left the meeting.

Truth is, at least from my vantage point, the players’ latest offer had a true impact Wednesday. I know it doesn’t feel that way right now for the players, who believe they put their best foot forward only to have the league stomp on it. But in fact, the NHLPA’s willingness for the first time to base a framework on the percentage of hockey-related revenue and not a guaranteed dollar amount was a monumental shift.

Sure, hell will freeze over before the owners ever pay out $393 million on the "make-whole" provision, which the NHLPA asked for Wednesday, not to mention that little guarantee the union sneaked in there that the players’ share in total dollars can’t go down less than the previous season in the next CBA. Yeah, that’s going to be left on the cutting room floor, as well, when all is said and done.

But you see, this is the point of actual negotiation. You give and you take, you go back and forth.

There’s a deal here, which is more clear than ever after the players moved to a percentage-based framework.

Somewhere between $211 million and $393 million is your magic number for "make-whole."

The league has to step down on more of its player contracting rights. The owners are still asking for too many and too much in that area. And although I give the union credit for a creative and clever back-diving formula, until it affects not just future contracts but also existing contracts, the league won’t sign off on that, either.

There’s a lot more to mend here in the sizable gap that remains on these matters and more. But it’s there. I can see it. I can almost touch it.

If this deal doesn’t get done, it’s because the politics will have gotten in the way of measured thinking. And it’s possible that could happen.

It’s possible, for example, that hard-line owners will pressure Bettman into minimizing the $211 million "make-whole" amount or taking it off the table altogether. That would be plain dumb. And a deal killer.

It’s also possible the league’s negative in-room reaction to the NHLPA’s offer Wednesday will serve to only further galvanize the players, particularly after moderate players had won out over the hard-liners Tuesday in pushing for a proposal that went percentage-based -- i.e., a framework that spoke the league’s language.

Now those moderate players who stuck their neck out in pushing for that might feel beyond enraged at how the league took to their efforts.

"They just united us," one NHL player told me Wednesday night, pointing to the way the league handled the players’ offer.

That kind of players-wide anger could easily entrench their position and allow executive director Don Fehr to really drag this out if he feels that’s the best course of action to get a better deal. And you likely will hear more talk about decertification as an option for the union.

That puts the onus on the league, I think, to come back sooner rather than later with ideas that embrace some of the NHLPA’s proposal and continue to push this negotiation ahead.

And I think that will happen.

I don’t buy all the doom and gloom that was out there Wednesday. It was not a wasted day at all.

If and when there’s a new CBA to save a shortened season, I believe we’ll look back at the NHLPA’s offer from Wednesday and point to it as an important factor in eventually finding the path to concurrence.

Just maybe.