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Donald Fehr (C), executive director for the National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA), stands in front of National Hockey League (NHL) players Brad Richards and Sidney Crosby (L) to address the media on the difficulties in labour negotiations between the NHLPA and the NHL in New York, December 6, 2012. NHLPA said the league rejected its latest offer on Thursday as labour talks aimed at ending the lockout unexpectedly broke off on Thursday. (LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS)
Donald Fehr (C), executive director for the National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA), stands in front of National Hockey League (NHL) players Brad Richards and Sidney Crosby (L) to address the media on the difficulties in labour negotiations between the NHLPA and the NHL in New York, December 6, 2012. NHLPA said the league rejected its latest offer on Thursday as labour talks aimed at ending the lockout unexpectedly broke off on Thursday. (LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS)

NHL Lockout

Duhatschek: Latest breakdown reminiscent of 2004 Add to ...

So here’s a prediction based as much on the past as the present state of NHL labour relations:

The chances of salvaging any portion of the 2012-13 NHL season went from slim to virtually zero Thursday, a roller-coaster moment in the negotiations that closely resembled an almost-identical day eight years ago.

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Can anyone remember how that played out?

On Dec. 10, 2004, NHL Players’ Association executive director Bob Goodenow made a dramatic offer to end the lockout, proposing that players would immediately accept a 24-per-cent rollback on salaries – a move he asserted would save the NHL hundreds of millions of dollars.

Too many observers jumped the gun and declared it a season-saving moment, when it was anything but.

The NHL considered it a useful first step on the way to a hard salary cap, demanded further concessions and, ultimately, the two sides were unable to come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement. The 2004-05 season was lost, and by the time they finally settled the bitter dispute, the union was broken and the league was declaring unconditional victory.

It was more of the same Thursday, a real case of déjà vu.

It started with some optimism from NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr that an agreement was at hand, characterizing the gap between the two sides as negligible. “We think there’s a complete agreement on dollars.”

The NHL didn’t see it quite the same way and rejected the NHLPA’s position out of hand.

How bad are things right now? One assertion from NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly summed up the discord.

“This is the hill we will die on,” Daly said, a reference to term limits on player contracts, which he says is one of three issues there will be no give on. (The others: A 10-year labour agreement, with an option for the NHLPA to reopen after eight; and the transition issues in going from one CBA to the next, in which the players are looking for escrow limits and compliance buyouts.)

The NHL left a gaping loophole in the last CBA, which permitted teams to sign players to contracts of indeterminate lengths, largely to circumvent the salary cap. Player agents and general managers eagerly moved in and front-loaded contracts for 10 years or more became de rigueur among the high-flying set.

Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby just got one of them this past summer, a 12-year deal worth $104.4-million (U.S.). The two newest members of the Minnesota Wild, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, each received 13-year deals worth $98-million.

The NHL is determined to put that genie back in the bottle and, currently, the best the players’ association was prepared to do was limit player contracts to a maximum of eight seasons.

The league provided concessions on financial issues – the so-called “make-whole” provision – and gave ground on some other contract markers, including salary arbitration, free agency and entry-level, but according to Daly and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, those were all part of a larger package. If the union wouldn’t agree to their demands, then the NHL’s concessions were taken off the table.

According to Bettman’s math, there are now 90 players on contracts that run six years or longer, compared to just one in 2006, when the last CBA took effect. Still, the most damaging contracts are the ones that run eight-years plus, of which there are just 22. And only 16 players out of about 750 are on contracts that run 10 years or longer (roughly just over 2 per cent of the workforce).

Is it worth losing a season over a CBA provision that affects so few – keeping in mind players who have these long-term commitments are usually the NHL’s top earners and thus would make oodles of cash, even on short-term deals? It seems wholly unnecessary – and yet, the gap in 2004 seemed manageable at the 11th hour, too.

More worrisome than anything Thursday was how the rhetoric was stepped up after talks broke down.

According to Daly, the moderate owners trying to bridge the gap were “insulted” by the NHLPA’s reluctance to offer anything tangible in return for the league upping its financial offer.

Bettman said he was “disappointed beyond belief that we are where we are.”

The quaint notion that the NHL season would be up and running by Christmas just went up in smoke, and the thought that the union will start the decertification process went from a theoretical option to a real possibility.

All because the two sides cannot bridge a three-year gap on contract limits and a two-year divide on the length of the CBA.

It makes you think: These two sides really do deserve each other.

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