As talks crumble, cliff looms for NHL

Commissioner Gary Bettman (right), shown with deputy commissioner Bill Daly in December, has been unable to work out a deal to get the season started.    ASSOCIATED PRESS
Commissioner Gary Bettman (right), shown with deputy commissioner Bill Daly in December, has been unable to work out a deal to get the season started.    ASSOCIATED PRESS
Posted: January 06, 2013

NEW YORK - The NHL's headquarters and a makeshift office for its Players' Association are separated by fewer than six short blocks in Manhattan.

Yet, the ideological gulf is so large that the federally appointed mediator in this contentious labor dispute found it best to keep the two sides physically separated for most of the last 2 days - like angry boxers sent to their respective corners to recuperate.

The only good news is that we've finally reached Round 15 of this heavyweight ego fight, one that we already know will end with two losers.

If commissioner Gary Bettman's date of Jan. 19 is to be believed as a last possible puck drop to salvage 48-game season, that would mean a deal must be brokered by this Friday. A brief, weeklong training camp would open the following day.

Amazingly, hockey might fall behind boxing in the United States' sporting landscape if the NHL cancels a second season in 8 years. The Winnipeg Free Press recently cited an anonymous NHL governor as saying that Bettman will cancel the season as soon as Thursday if a deal is not at least reached in principle.

Meanwhile, frustrations are mounting inside both the NHL and NHLPA offices as a result of this roller-coaster ride. Positivity - spurred by meetings that went until after midnight on Wednesday night - has been traded for doom and gloom after only 2 days.

Saturday marks Day 112 of the NHL lockout, the second-longest work stoppage in league history.

With most key issues solved - including the division of revenue and even the length of a new deal (10 years) - we're down to arguing about pension plans, contract term limits for players and the reduction of salary cap from Year 1 to Year 2 of the deal.

Those three relatively ridiculous items are what is preventing an additional week's worth of wages to players for four extra games - and more important, the oft-forgotten arena and concession workers who have paid dearly for this lockout.

Instead, each side would rather sit and slander the other. There isn't even a small shred of trust involved in their negotiations from either party. Multiple reports on Friday had the NHLPA accusing the league of sneakily changing language in the contract without notification. The NHL said any changes were underlined and highlighted. The league believes the union is milking the drop-dead date as a way of trying to better the deal for the players.

Want to solve the pension-plan problems? How about signing a deal now to squeeze in an extra four games. The Canadian Press reported that an additional four games would be worth as much as $130 million in revenue - or approximately $120,000 on average per player. Take that money and invest it properly for 35 years.

Rather, the big news of the weekend will be whether the players file a "disclaimer of interest" letter, which would essentially dissolve the union. Voting to approve the possibility of a "disclaimer of interest" by players began on Thursday and wraps up on Saturday night. Rogers Sportsnet's Nick Kypreos reported on that the players have already voted overwhelmingly enough in just 1 day to give their executive board that power.

Whether the NHLPA actually uses that power this time will change everything. Of course, the threat to use the "disclaimer of interest" expired on Wednesday at midnight, forcing the players to revote.

Put another way: There was so much progress on Wednesday that the NHLPA saw no reason to use the disclaimer. Now, talks are nearly off the rails again. It remains unclear at this point when the sides will begin to bargain again face-to-face.

The optics of it all are so unappealing, unfathomable and borderline unforgivable. The entire sport is at risk of being wiped off the map in a number of markets, yet it's every last dollar or nugget that matters.

Hockey's very real cliff is coming into full view this week. At least we'll know soon whether the sport is saved or splattered.


Email: seravaf@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @DNFlyers

Blog: philly.com/FrequentFlyers

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