NHL labor talks break down

Updated: December 7, 2012, 10:08 AM ET
By Katie Strang | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- An emotional week of labor negotiations came to a crashing halt Thursday as any hope that the NHL and the NHL Players' Association could reach a deal to end the lockout was blown up in epic fashion.

After three days of labor talks aimed at reaching a new collective bargaining agreement, the league rejected the union's latest proposal and pulled several elements of its own off the negotiating table.

All optimism that a resolution was on the precipice evaporated, replaced quickly by fear that salvaging the season never has looked more bleak.

According to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, all items offered to the NHLPA in the past week have been rescinded, along with any and all "Make Whole" payments.

It is unclear when the two sides will meet again, although NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr said the union was informed not to expect any meeting before the weekend.

Multiple sources also told ESPNNewYork.com that there is expected to be a serious discussion soon amongst the union on possible decertification or disclaimer of interest. It is believed the issue was discussed on the players' conference call Thursday morning, and that a vote could come together soon once readdressed.

Negotiating committee member Chris Campoli said decertification has "always been an option."

"I think it's the obvious answer," Campoli said. "Although whether it's imminent, I don't know."

Fehr, who initially believed the two sides were close after the union's most recent offer Thursday night, said the NHLPA was notified via voicemail message that its proposal was "not acceptable."

In his initial news conference following Thursday's meeting, Fehr cited all the areas in which the two sides had reached an agreement after the union's last proposal -- pension plans, transition payments, for example -- and said they had bridged the gap on dollars completely.

But in a stunning, soap-operatic twist, Fehr returned to the podium shortly afterward with a distinctly different visage.

"It looks like this is not going to be resolved in the immediate future," he said, flanked by a squad of dejected-looking players.

In contrast to Fehr's somber attitude, Bettman adopted an emotional and fiery demeanor in explaining the league's stance on the situation.

Bettman blasted Fehr for what he felt was an attempt to "spin" the message to convey the two sides are closer to a deal than they are. The commissioner essentially chastised Fehr for whipping fans up into a frenzy.

"I find it absolutely incomprehensible he'd do that," Bettman said.

You know what my magic date was? October 11, when we should've started the season.

-- NHL commissioner Gary Bettman

Bettman, who chose not to attend Thursday's session along with the six owners who participated in the week's discussions, said the NHL requested a "yes-or-no" answer on three vital issues deemed as being of the utmost importance.

Those items, which deputy commissioner Bill Daly described as issues they're willing to "die on the hill" for, are the five-year contract term limit, the 10-year length of the CBA and the transition rules discussed.

The union responded, however, with a proposal of its own that included: items such as an eight-year CBA with an opt-out for the players in the sixth year; eight-year contract term limits; an agreement on the $300 million transition payment; an agreement on the pension payment plan derived from the players' share; and a variance rule that prohibits any contract of seven years or longer from varying more than 25 percent from the lowest- to highest-paid year.

There appears to be an element of mistrust between the sides, particularly as negotiations grew increasingly contentious.

Ron Hainsey of the Winnipeg Jets said the union was told by the league at one point Wednesday night that having Fehr return to the negotiating table could potentially be a "deal breaker."

One source also indicated to ESPNNewYork.com that was what led the NHLPA to request the reinvolvement of a federal mediator.

Larry Tanenbaum of the Toronto Maple Leafs, one of the six owners who attended the earlier discussions this week, said he was "shocked" by the turn of events Thursday.

"The sessions on Tuesday felt cooperative with an air of goodwill," he said in a statement. "However, when we reconvened with the players on Wednesday afternoon, it was like someone had thrown a switch. The atmosphere had completely changed. Nevertheless, the owners tried to push forward and made a number of concessions and proposals, which were not well-received. I question whether the union is interested in making an agreement."

Several players appeared shocked upon hearing the news their offer was deemed "not acceptable." Even superstar Sidney Crosby was seen shaking his head while sitting up on the dais along with several other players flanking Fehr.

Bettman also was uncharacteristically upset. His voice seemed to shake several times as he delivered his take on the state of affairs.

Asked about this being the third lockout on his watch, he responded: "It absolutely is something that torments me."

When asked about an internal drop-dead date the league had for when a deal would have to be reached to avoid losing the season completely, Bettman snapped back that there was no such thing.

"You know what my magic date was? October 11, when we should've started the season," he said.

Bettman denied that an actual date exists, although he did concede he did not envision playing any less than 48 games, the length of the shortened season in 1995.

Although there seems to be a healthy dose of skepticism on whether the league is ready to negotiate a deal given the way Thursday unfolded, Bettman expressed remorse about the work stoppage.

"We are where we are, no matter how horrible it is," he said.

Information from ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun was used in this report.

Katie Strang covers the NHL for ESPN.com. She is a graduate of Michigan State University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
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