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Friday, January 4, 2013
Debate: Will shuttle diplomacy get it done?

By Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun

Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun were chasing the mediator all day and came up with several viewpoints on Friday's meetings. Fellas?

BURNSIDE: Aren’t these negotiations fun? At least the NHL and its players do have a habit of keeping you on your toes. After things looked pretty bleak Thursday night and with lots of rumblings about what a return of the disclaimer of interest option might mean for attempts to save at least a portion of this hockey season, Friday actually turned out to be a pretty busy day. Well, busy at least for federal mediator Scot Beckenbaugh, who shuttled between the NHLPA’s hotel near Times Square and the NHL’s offices around the corner throughout the day and long into the evening. Now, when two sides are as prickly with each other as these two have been in the past couple of days, maybe this shuttle diplomacy is the only way to move the sides forward. The threat of a disclaimer of interest isn't gone, but a few people I talked to don’t believe that it is a card the players will play until sometime next week as we draw closer to the league’s Jan. 11 deadline for getting a deal done that would allow a 48-game season to be played starting Jan. 19. But people you, Pierre, were talking to suggested both sides have indicated to the mediator that, well, actually there is some wiggle room on some of those issues that remain outstanding. Whether that means the funding of player pensions, the cap on contract length or the level at which next season’s salary cap settles in, we’re not exactly sure, but wiggle room is better than an empty room. (OK, that analogy might be a bit of a stretch, but you know where I’m going with this, right?)

LEBRUN: It’s on nights like this, waiting for the next batch of labor news, that I tend to get in trouble and take a picture of a colleague that makes him a Twitter sensation. Apologies to my TSN teammate Darren Dreger, although I think he half-enjoyed the limelight that #Dregerface produced. If anything should have been trending on Friday, it was the Beckenbaugh Shuffle. Talk about a workout: back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, all morning, all afternoon and all night long between the NHLPA’s hotel and the NHL offices a couple of blocks apart. But in all seriousness, after Thursday’s waste of a day, it was nice to see some form of constructive work being done to try to end this lockout. Sources told me that both sides told the mediator they had some wiggle room on the key items that still separate the two sides, and he spent the day trying to explore that and find middle ground. Eventually, when he feels he covered enough ground there, he’ll suggest the two sides get back in a room. The fact the mediator feels it’s worthy of his presence to stay involved again Saturday morning, to me, is a positive sign in itself that there was some level of traction Friday. The other good part about Friday is that having both sides re-engage in the process without having to be in the same room might not be such a bad thing after all the bitterness of Thursday. In the end, however, no matter what kind of traction the mediator is able to produce, Gary Bettman and Don Fehr will need to share the same room in order to this thing to get closer again.

BURNSIDE: I thought it was interesting when Fehr let slip two nights ago that the mediator was even in the picture at all. And, then, as you reported, it turns out Beckenbaugh has been involved all week. As you know, the history of mediation with the NHL specifically and sports leagues in general hasn’t been all that successful. But given the tortured history of these two sides and the ugliness to which you referred that put a real damper on things on Thursday, I agree that perhaps it will ultimately be mediation that helps the two sides find enough common ground -- I hazard to use the term "trust" at this stage -- to get a deal done. I still think that the disclaimer might yet play a part in how this unfolds but, as you know, I am a perpetually glass-half-full kind of guy and I think the fact that the mediator will be returning to work with the two parties Saturday morning is a good sign. And at this stage, we’ll take all the good signs we can get.

LEBRUN: The question is where can both sides still bend? We know the NHL wants a $60 million salary cap for Year 2 of the deal and the NHLPA has come in at $65 million, creating a key impasse on that front. My guess, and I’m really guessing, but I believe the NHL will ultimately bend a little here and move up to $62 million or $62.5 million. Whether or not that’s high enough for the players remains to be seen. We also know the league has offered six-year terms on individual contracts and the players have come in at eight years. My belief is the players are willing to go to seven years. That leaves them just one year apart, so who blinks?

The two sides are resuming mediation Saturday morning in a day that shapes up to be yet another major moment in this long and sordid affair, because the NHLPA by evening will once again be armed with the authorization to file a disclaimer of interest. The players’ vote to reauthorize the executive board and Fehr will wrap up by 6 p.m. ET. What’s not clear is when exactly Fehr and the players have until to file that nuclear option. All of which puts huge pressure on the NHL to try to get a deal done sooner rather than later.

BURNSIDE: Agreed that Saturday once again looms large (and really, when you’re talking about days to save a season, I guess they will all loom large), but once again Friday was a day marked by significant work, even if the two sides weren’t meeting and had very little in the way of information leaking out into the public domain. I am with you that there has to be middle ground on the Year 2 salary cap, but it will be about who is willing to take the final shuffling steps toward the middle on the other outstanding issues. And there is the great unknown that surrounds what happens when commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr appear in the same room again. We know that has been oil and water from the get-go, and both sides are deeply suspicious of a last-minute, new wrinkle or stick in the spokes. But, as I wrote Thursday, failure is simply not an option for either side and here’s hoping the mediator continues to highlight that notion moving forward on Saturday. And by the way, always a pleasure to be working alongside a reporter who gets mentioned in the Hollywood Reporter. You are and will always be big time, my friend.

LEBRUN: Ha, that’s me blushing. But seriously, just have this feeling that Friday was a turning point despite no face-to-face meeting. It should not shock me if a deal gets done within the next three to four days. Then again, I’ve said that before.

Until tomorrow, sir.