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NHL commissioner Gary Bettman (Mary Altaffer/AP)
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman (Mary Altaffer/AP)

NHL lockout: Big Four set to meet again but is that a sign of optimism? Add to ...

The labour negotiations in the NHL, if you can call them that, have entered the wishful thinking stage. That, of course, is more bad news for the league’s shrinking fan base.

It is at this point that many people inside the hockey industry and out seize on the slightest sign for optimism and squeeze it for hope the owners will come to their senses and end their second lockout in eight years. The latest glimmer came with news The Big Four, as they have come to be known, will be in the same room on Tuesday in Toronto and, oh happy day, they will actually discuss the major issue standing in the way of a collective agreement.

Imagine that, sports fans. Five days after the regular season was supposed to start, there are labour negotiations where not only the tall foreheads are talking – NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, deputy commissioner Bill Daly and NHL Players Association executive director Donald Fehr and special counsel Steve Fehr – but they’re actually going to discuss what’s keeping the arenas empty.

Not only that, but Bettman, Daly and Donald Fehr all blew off Monday’s U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame inductions in Dallas, the implication being that big developments are afoot in Toronto. Ed Olczyk, Mike Modano and Lou Lamoriello would just have to accept their honours without three of the Big Four looking on.

Well, sorry to throw cold water on any faintly glowing embers of optimism but there is no sign this round of talks is going to be any less lame than what’s happened so far in the month-long lockout.

First, the parties are strolling into the union offices at 11 a.m., not exactly the time of day that would indicate urgent business is at hand. Second, there are no talks formally scheduled beyond today. Finally, while the parties will discuss the major economic issues that separate them – the players’ desire for more revenue sharing and the owners’ desire to slash the players’ salaries – all they’re going to talk about, according to Daly, are “ideas for moving the process forward on the main issues.”

It’s all about the process, don’t you know.

The best both sides can do right now is suggest the other make an offer.

In the meantime, the NHL embarrassed itself when Deadspin found out the league dropped a wad of cash on notorious Republican spin doctor Frank Luntz. He convened a focus group in Washington, D.C., to explore ways to blame the lockout on the union and the whole thing blew up in the NHL’s face on social media.

At this point, the big problem is neither side has any serious pressure on it. The players missed their first pay cheques late last week but they have escrow payments from last season coming shortly. Those cheques will be for a little more than eight per cent of each player’s annual salary, a tidy sum indeed, one that should tide them over through the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday at least.

Speaking of Thanksgiving, that may be when the owners start hearing restless noises from some of their sponsors and the NBC television network. Late November is when the league has to make a decision about whether to proceed with preparations for the Winter Classic, which is set for Jan. 1 at the University of Michigan between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings.

A rink needs to be built for Michigan’s stadium and another one is to go in Comerica Park in downtown Detroit for the events leading up to the big game. Plus there are all the other preparations connected to what’s become one of the biggest events on the NHL calendar, not to mention the shooting of the HBO series 24/7, which has brought the league a mountain of positive exposure in the last couple of years.

If the networks and the sponsors start grumbling about losing events like the outdoor game, that will do more to move labour talks from “the process” to the actual issues than anything else.

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