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A fan holds up a sign as Team WHL and Team Russia play during the third period in game 5 of the CHL Subway Super Series in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday November 14, 2012 (The Canadian Press)

A fan holds up a sign as Team WHL and Team Russia play during the third period in game 5 of the CHL Subway Super Series in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday November 14, 2012

(The Canadian Press)

Duhatschek: Welcome to the half-way point of the NHL lockout Add to ...

I read that today and wondered if he was actually within earshot when we talked about one of the real differences this time around – that there is no vehicle for the sort of back-channel communications our reader suggests should take place between the likes of Geoff Molson and Mario Lemieux.

Back in 2004, the NHLPA had a player president, Trevor Linden, and an executive committee, in addition to an executive director, Bob Goodenow, and his deputy, Ted Saskin. Goodenow was the No. 1 man on the bargaining team, and acted as a sort of coach or general manager, but Linden was the de facto captain of the players’ team.

As a group, players understand that sort of chain of command – teammate, captain, coach, manager - and feel comfortable operating within it. If they wanted a private word about the progression of the lockout, without engaging Goodenow, they could do so with Linden, who was highly regarded by his peer group for integrity and fairness.

Ultimately, it was Linden and one of the secondary negotiators on the owners’ team, former NHL board chairman Harley Hotchkiss, who made the first inroads which eventually led to a settlement in July, 2005.

In the aftermath of that agreement, there was a significant bloodletting within the players association. A new hierarchy emerged that no longer features a player as president.

Instead, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr has a far more diffused base, with players popping in and out of the negotiations all the time. Just about every time Fehr steps before the microphone, he stresses his open-door policy – how any player who wants to engage in the process, or needs a point clarified, is welcome to do so. Every so often, whenever they need a show of strength, a who’s who of NHL stars appears at Fehr’s side, to demonstrate solidarity. Sidney Crosby weighs in periodically, just to affirm his support of the NHLPA negotiating stance.

But when the office of NHLPA president disappeared in the restructuring, the dynamic of the negotiations also changed. Fehr hired his brother Steve as his No. 2 and suddenly, there are no opportunities for any back channel talks. It is a development that is frustrating the league to no end, one of the many changes the NHL didn’t give enough weight to when the process started back in July, when it fired its first CBA volley.

They presented a wish list for the current agreement as a legitimate opening offer. Instead of dismissing it out of hand, the NHLPA just let it sit there for close to two months, percolating in the public consciousness, ensuring that animosity would build up towards the owners. It would have been easy for the NHLPA to respond with a counter offer right away. The fact that they didn’t was stroke of public relations genius, one which the league didn’t anticipate.

The players had the better part of the summer to work themselves into a lather over that bit of foolishness. The NHL then exacerbated the problem by hurriedly signing dozens of players to contract extensions just before the Sept. 15 lockout deadline, providing more ammunition for Fehr and Co. It also gave the player rank-and-file a chance to rally around a perfectly legitimate question – if the economics of the league were so bad, why were teams throwing so much money around just before the deal expired?

So now, as the NHL makes incrementally improving offers from the July starting point, it is coming up against a wall of doubt and suspicion. Mostly, the players have decided just to trust Fehr for guidance on when they might make their best possible deal, without sacrificing a full season. When will that moment come? Will it ever come? Will the league dig in? Will the players association always ask for one more concession, until they get to the same point they did back in February of 2005, when they ran out of time to save any sort of a meaningful season?

The answer, right now, is nobody knows for sure. Most think it could go either way, with the wild card being Fehr. Negotiators on the NHL side have consulted with their counterparts in major league baseball and the intelligence they have gathered from them has them worried. The league doesn’t plan a meek surrender, but they’re not sure how far they can push the NHLPA, which was dug in on revenue-sharing, and then the ‘make-whole’ provision and now on contracting rights.

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