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Thursday, January 3, 2013
Talks going from embarrassing to worse

By Pierre LeBrun


NEW YORK -- The most embarrassing work stoppage in the history of pro sports has found a way once again to show it might also be the most irrational ever of its kind.

A week that produced the most movement in the entire process, proposals and counteroffers moving each side closer and closer to a deal, was grounded to a bizarre halt Thursday with the two sides not resuming full bargaining.

Well, what the hurry, right?

Oh, sure, there was a small group session on hockey-related revenue as well as one on pensions, but somehow no real bargaining, as Jan. 3 came and went without any meaningful dialogue with the season hanging in the balance.

Seriously, folks, you can’t make this up.

OK, it turns out the players and their leader, Don Fehr, were in foul mood after they discovered the league might have tried to pull as fast one on HRR language in last week's offer. Did I say last week’s offer? Yes, I did. Did it really take a week for the union’s lawyers to find the HRR treachery? I don’t have a law degree and I’m sure these things are complicated, but if I’m a player I’m just as angry at the league for trying to pull a fast one as much as wanting to know why it took a week for my people to figure it out.

Then again, as one NHL team executive mused to me Thursday night, perhaps Fehr knew all along but was waiting until the right time to pull that one out of the hat to get his players all riled up and galvanized? That perhaps, after having some players second-guess him Wednesday night for not filing the disclaimer of interest (several players told me they would have liked him to do so), that perhaps Fehr needed to change the focus? Not sure I can buy that kind of conspiracy stuff but the fact some reasonable-thinking people think that’s even possible also shows you what this lockout has done to people in our industry: We’re all going crazy.

Certainly, if indeed the NHL was feeling a little too confident after Fehr didn’t pull the trigger on the disclaimer, that was a short-lived emotion, if at all. The NHLPA quickly turned around Thursday and started a 48-hour vote on reauthorizing the executive board and Fehr to have the disclaimer hammer again. And this time, I don’t think the union will be shy in using it. If they don’t, how could a court ever believe it was nothing more than a sham, a negotiating tactic, if they hold two player votes for a disclaimer but never actually go through with the notification?

The only thing stopping the union from dissolving itself now is a deal getting done in short order.

And stop the presses, despite all the negative tone Thursday, lost was the fact that the past few days before had produced meaningful progress.

To wit:

• The NHLPA agreed to go to 10 years in CBA length, finally matching the NHL’s desire on term for the deal (although the NHLPA has an opt out after Year 7 while the NHL would prefer one after Year 8).

• The NHLPA asked the NHL to up its compliance buyout to two per team, up from one per team before the 2013-14 season. The league agreed.

• The NHL upped its salary variance rule to 30 percent, up from the 5 percent and then 10 percent demands it had had in previous offers.

Seven or eight unresolved issues remain, sources say, the three most meaningful ones being the second-year cap, the length of player contacts and the players’ pension.

Are we really going to see a season canceled over those remaining issues? Or if a season is canceled, is it more because of the dysfunctional dynamic that exists between both sides in negotiation?

Did I mention this was the most embarrassing and irrational sports labor negotiation in history?

Logic dictates a deal will get done, given what little separates both sides. But logic has been benched for long periods of this sordid game.