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NHL Lockout Watch 2012: Negotiations as of December 7

NHLPA tactics leave Gary Bettman and the owners frustrated.

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Depending on your mood, Thursday, December 6 marked the disintegration of hope, or just another speed bump on the road to a deal.

Suffice to say that negotiations to end the NHL lockout are over for this week, and the sunny outlook of a few days ago has dissolved.

So what happened? Why did the good vibes come to nothing?

It might all be part of Donald Fehr's strategy.

What's apparent at this point is that the NHL Players' Association is bobbing and weaving, seeking any small weakness in the opponent.

Every time Gary Bettman tries to define the parameters and terms of a new deal, Fehr looks interested, then slips away.

Every time the NHL gives a little, rewrites its offer, and demands a simple yes-or-no response, the NHLPA changes the subject:

"How about a bit more here... a bit less there... and by the way, here's something we forgot to mention before..."

It left a frustrated NHL commissioner lamenting how this week's optimism "almost inexplicably" disappeared, and angry about the "shockingly silent" response when the league made what it saw as major concessions.

Fehr appeared unperturbed, insisting that "we are clearly very close if not on top of one another in connection with most of the major issues."

An "absolutely incomprehensible" statement, according to Bettman.

The Fehr style infuriates Bettman and the owners (obviously), leaves fans guessing, and gives the media a collective migraine.

But keep in mind that the players have been on the back foot throughout this process.

Whenever and however the lockout ends, they'll end up with a smaller slice of the revenue pie, plus contract limits that directly impact long-term earning power.

In that context, Fehr is surely determined to use any tactic that might nudge his agenda forward, even if it leaves everyone else grinding their teeth.

For now, the NHL has declared that its recent concessions are "off the table" while Bettman and his team regroup.

Whether the Fehr tactics will continue to work is an open question. There were media reports of heated discussions among NHLPA members as this week's talks were ongoing. So tension is rising on all sides.

Here are the key points in the latest deal-that-wasn't (remember that all of this is now "off the table" according to Bettman):

  • The NHL increased it's "make whole" offer from $211 million to $300 million. Fehr indicated that he considers the issue resolved.
  • The NHL dropped its previous demands for changes to the rules governing unrestricted free agency and salary arbitration. In previous bargaining, the league had already dropped its demand for changes to the entry-level system.
  • The NHL stood firm on its wish for a five-year maximum on player contracts, adding one exception: a seven-year maximum for a free agent re-signing with his current team. (NHL VP Bill Daly called this "the hill we'll die on.") For the first time, the NHLPA accepted the idea of a limit. But they want an eight-year maximum, with the option for teams to add extra years before a contract expires.
  • The NHL is also sticking with its "contract variance" rule: in any new contract, year-to-year salary cannot vary by more than plus-or-minus five per cent. The NHLPA countered by suggesting a variance of no more than 25 per cent, but only on contracts exceeding seven years.
  • The NHL is demanding an eight-year collective agreement, with options that could extend it to ten years. The NHLPA asked for a shorter deal, reportedly six-to-eight years.
  • The NHL is insisting on no "compliance buyouts." That is, no one-time period during which teams can adjust to the new salary cap by buying out player contracts without counting those buyouts against the cap.

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