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The mood was jobial on the team Subban bench during play between NHLPA's Team Subban and Team Stamkos in the Play Hockey RBC Charity Challenge at the old Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, December 19, 2012. (J.P. Moczulski For The Globe and Mail)

The mood was jobial on the team Subban bench during play between NHLPA's Team Subban and Team Stamkos in the Play Hockey RBC Charity Challenge at the old Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, December 19, 2012.

(J.P. Moczulski For The Globe and Mail)

NHL players contemplating a leap into the great unknown Add to ...

A lot of NHL players, it turns out, are just like you and me – wondering just how they all wound up in this sorry mess.

On one side, deputy NHL commissioner Bill Daly is saying he still thinks there can be some sort of season even as his bosses, the NHL owners, show no interest in returning to negotiations unless the players want to talk about, and give in, on things of interest only to the owners. In the meantime, the league launched a class-action lawsuit against the players as a preemptive strike on any plans to decertify the union.

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On the other, the players are now contemplating a leap into the unknown. By Friday, the NHL Players’ Association should be finished voting on a mandate for the executive committee to declare a “disclaimer of interest.” That is a labour lawyer’s way of saying the union could dissolve, making more than 720 NHL players free agents and giving them the right to sue the owners on anti-trust grounds.

It appears the measure will easily pass, although it is seen as more of a bargaining tactic for NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr to wield against the owners than an immediate move. But it still brings the great unknown a step away and there is still no resolution in sight to the league’s third lockout in 18 years under commissioner Gary Bettman.

“It’s tough. No one wanted to miss one game,” Toronto Maple Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul said after playing in a charity game Wednesday night that raised $100,000 for the union’s Goals and Dreams fund and RBC’s grassroots hockey programs.

“Everyone keeps saying there’s a point where there’s a ton of pressure,” Lupul said of the latest moves by the players and owners. “I’ve been feeling a lot of pressure the whole time. We’re hockey players, this is what we do. It’s really frustrating to not be doing it.

“To be watching the news for updates, waiting for e-mails from Don [Fehr], that’s definitely not what we had in mind going into this year at all. We knew there would be a labour situation of some sort. But to be at this point going on Christmas and now we’re voting on things, lawsuits are being filed, this is not how we saw this going.”

Lupul’s teammate, defenceman John-Michael Liles, feels the same. He never thought he would still be coaching a prep-school hockey team back home in Indiana as the new year approaches.

But what changed everything for him and his peers was the owners’ first offer back in July. It was essentially the wish list Bettman presented the owners several months earlier, a long list of clawbacks rather than a meaningful attempt to negotiate. It also knocked any sense of complacency out of the players, who remain solidly behind Fehr.

“Honestly, if you’d asked me before the season if it would be where it is right now I would have said no,” Liles said. “That first offer that was thrown our way was interesting, Until that offer, there were a lot of guys that weren’t really concerned with how things would proceed.

“It brought a lot of the membership more in the know because all of a sudden you were presented with this offer and it’s like, ‘Wait a minute, are you kidding me?’ It set the tone for a lot of different things.”

Months later, after the players essentially agreed to the 50-50 split of NHL revenue the owners wanted outside of the timing and how they get there, Liles, Lupul and the rest of the players say the most discouraging thing is there is still no sign of compromise from the owners.

“Ultimately, the players have to agree on a deal that’s at least decent for us,” Liles said. “So far there’ve been bits and pieces proposed we can live with. Ultimately, we‘re not getting anything close to what we had previously and we can understand that.”

What they can’t understand is why the owners still appear to want everything on their wish list.

“Where we are now, we’ve agreed on dollars which makes it more frustrating,” Lupul said. “It’s really frustrating. The take-it-or-leave-it negotiating has really worn thin. It’s tough when we do sit down and it’s take it or leave it.”

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