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Thursday, December 6, 2012
Updated: December 7, 3:58 AM ET
Labor talks bring high drama

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- In terms of theater, you hardly could have asked for more.

If theater was what you were after, of course.

There were the head of the NHL Players' Association, Donald Fehr, and some of the game's most respected players explaining to the media how they believed they were scant inches from a deal that would save at least some portion of the 2012-13 season.

"We think there is a complete agreement on dollars," Fehr proclaimed. And if that's the case, there is no reason there shouldn't be a deal "in the near future."

You could almost hear the jaws of the collected media drop.

Really? After all the negative vibes from the previous 24 hours?

Exit Fehr. Players such as Sidney Crosby, Shane Doan, Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards and Shawn Horcoff waited awkwardly.

Hmm. Interesting development.

Re-enter Fehr.

Remember all that close stuff? Never mind.

During Donald Fehr's initial news conference, deputy commissioner Bill Daly left a voice mail message on special counsel Steve Fehr's cellphone saying that not only had the league rejected the players' latest proposal, but it also had pulled elements of the owners' latest proposal off the table and there was no need to meet Thursday evening or Friday.

Oops. Guess they weren't so close after all.

Exit the Fehr brothers and the suddenly grim-faced players.

Enter Gary Bettman and Daly.

Never have we seen the commissioner so visibly agitated as he was in describing the egregious acts he insisted the union had perpetrated on the owners in the previous 48 hours.

At times he struggled to find the words to describe his anguish at how things had gone off the rails after such a promising start to the week.

Dramatic?

At one point, Daly asserted that the league's insistence on capping contract lengths at five years was "the hill we will die on," evoking images of Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill or any John Wayne war movie.

You couldn't beat Thursday's happenings for drama.

But as for anything approaching the end to this most nonsensical of labor disputes, well, that's where Thursday was yet another crushing blow for anyone who cares a whit about the game.

Perhaps most frustrating for hockey fans and presumably sponsors (who must have watched Thursday's little set piece unfold and wondered quietly why they ever signed up for this gong show of a league) is that the two sides' mistrust of each other has led them to a point where their languages sound similar yet are wildly distinct.

A source with the union insisted the NHLPA had no idea the owners would react so negatively to its proposal, although Bettman said the league and owners made it very clear they needed the players to agree to a series of conditions for talks to continue.

"That's not the first time he's said we're close when we weren't," Bettman said of Donald Fehr.

"I find it almost incomprehensible that he did that."

When the players didn't agree to the league's demands for a five-year limit on contracts, a 10-year term for a new collective bargaining agreement and no buyouts or caps on escrow as part of the transition to a new CBA, but instead offered variations on those conditions, the owners walked away -- as they had promised they would.

The scary part for anyone who thought this week was a make-or-break week for getting at least a portion of the season in the books is that both sides seem to truly believe they have given and then given some more.

Both sides appear to honestly believe they have been the ones to be the catalyst to change, that they are the ones who have made a deal possible, if not imminent.

"The players have done far and away the lion's share of the moving," Donald Fehr insisted.

Bettman said the owners were "beside themselves" when the players didn't respond with enthusiasm to their move to improve the make-whole pot to $300 million.

"Some of them I had never seen that emotional. They said they don't know what happened but this process is over. Clearly the union doesn't want to make a deal," Bettman said.

And naturally, both sides believe the other side is the sole reason we are not talking about when training camps might start.

How deep is the mistrust?

Winnipeg Jets defenseman Ron Hainsey said that when the players told the owners they wanted to bring Donald Fehr back into the process to help close a potential deal after several owners-players-only meetings earlier in the week, they were told by someone from the owners' side that was a potential "deal-breaker."

Daly denied that happened, and Hainsey would not say who warned the players off having Donald Fehr return to the table.

It's almost impossible, in the wake of the mushroom cloud that the talks became Thursday evening, to imagine what happens next. Both sides seem uncertain of what happens next.

"We both said we don't know where we go from here. We don't have any ideas with respect to next steps," Daly said.

The owners' offer of $300 million in make-whole money, money that would go to guaranteeing existing contracts, is off the table. There were conditions to the money, but it still represented a significant move from the league's initial $211 million offer.

"Anything that we put on the table this week is off the table," Bettman said.

Bettman was asked several times about the potential for the season to be canceled but would not be pinned down beyond saying he couldn't imagine playing fewer than 48 games, the number the two sides settled on during the 1994-95 lockout-shortened season.

That would suggest games would have to start within the next month.

One imagines there will be even more drama between these two sides before that happens.

"The fact of the matter is we will get to a point, and at that point, we will conclude we can't have a season with integrity, and then we'll have to make a tough decision. I am certainly hoping we don't get to that place, but when we do, we'll be there," Bettman said.

Oh, the drama.