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The Globe and Mail

It’s time for NHL fans to exercise their walk-away rights

Toronto Maple Leafs fans wear paper bags on their heads during the third period of their NHL hockey game against the New York Islanders in Toronto March 20, 2012.


During one of the previous occasions in which the NHL insulted its fans by shortening or cancelling the season, the owners gave themselves the right to walk away from some salary arbitration awards if they thought the player received too much money.

It's now time for hockey fans to exercise their walk-away rights.

Time to gather up those $400-per-game season tickets, that $35,000 seat licence with the mandatory $7,000-per-year Platinum Club fee if you're a Toronto Maple Leaf fan and send them back to the team.

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Get your $58,400 back and find something else to do with it and your time.

Yes, I know, no one is likely to do it, at least not in Toronto. Who wants to take a loss on a seat licence that could probably fetch $45,000 or more in an Internet auction? And the Leafs would just turn to the next sucker on their waiting list of 3,000 and he would gladly cough up.

But it would be the right thing to do. Try and think of another business with customers that pay it that kind of money that treats them this way. Try and think of another industry whose first response to the expiration of a labour agreement is to shut down.

On Feb. 1, hockey or no hockey, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will hit 20 years on the job. In that time, 2,365 regular-season games have been cancelled under his watch due to lockouts. As has been pointed out many, many times since the owners once again locked out the players, that is more games lost to labour disputes than the other three major professional leagues combined.

What has become clear in the last five days at the NHL's head offices is that Bettman and the owners are willing to cancel a season for the second time in eight years. A week that started with what proved once again to be misguided optimism when negotiations were restarted is ending amid the usual gloom

The talks between the union and the league broke down in the wee hours Thursday night when NHL Players' Association executive director Donald Fehr decided not to exercise a disclaimer of interest and notify Bettman the union planned to dissolve and sue the owners on anti-trust grounds.

The players left the decision up to Fehr. He has not said publicly why he chose not to do it by the union's self-imposed deadline of midnight Wednesday. But obviously, as a believer in organized labour and a union's right to bargain on behalf of all workers, Fehr would not take the decision to dissolve a union lightly. As long as there was even minute progress, it was not likely he would exercise the disclaimer.

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But then Fehr discovered what he probably already knew. These owners do not negotiate unless there is a gun to their heads.

It wasn't long before word filtered out of the players' ranks that the tone of Bettman and his negotiating team changed once the threat of a disclaimer was gone. Intransigence was back. The talks quickly broke down early Thursday morning.

So here we are Friday with a second day of no negotiating. Each side is meeting separately with U.S. federal mediator Scot Beckenbaugh but it appears to be a useless exercise.

In the meantime, the union is conducting another vote by the players to get the disclaimer club back in their hands. That should be ready by the dinner hour on Saturday.

There is nothing happening but accusations of gamesmanship and double-dealing from both sides. The union accused the NHL of pulling a bait-and-switch on hockey-related revenue by sneaking punishment for cheating teams out of the latest document. No we didn't, the NHL said, you knew about it a week ago and even asked questions on it. You're just accusing us now as an excuse to get a mulligan on the disclaimer.

And on it goes, with another self-imposed deadline coming up fast – Friday Jan. 11. If there is no new collective agreement by then, a second NHL season will be cancelled. At least one governor whispered to a reporter that Bettman is actually ready to pull the plug on Thursday.

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There is plenty of blame to go around here, but remember this. Lockouts are done by owners. This is the second one in eight years, the third in 18. Even if they get back to the table in a day or two and get a deal, this will be yet another stunted season.

And it's all in the wake of the owners raking in more money than they ever did before. The fans showered them with $3.3-billion (U.S.) last season. You don't need to use your imagination much to know what the owners showered the fans with in return.

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