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NHL shifts negotiating gears mid-race, tries to seize the high ground in PR war

Gary Bettman (left) Commissioner of the NHL and Bill Daly, Deputy Commissioner and chief legal officer of the NHL leave the NHLPA offices in Toronto on Wednesday, August 22, 2012. Negotiations continue between the NHL and the NHLPA over collective bargaining as both sides try to avoid a potential lockout.


It's good to occupy the high ground. For one thing, the weather's usually better.

There are also strategic advantages, as Chinese military tactician Sun Tzu observed 2,500 years ago, so it can't be a surprise the NHL would try to clamber up and unseat the NHL Players' Association in the public opinion version of king of the castle.

It's been a remarkable few days for the league, which has gone from a we-expect-the-players-to-make-the-next-offer and we-will-not-negotiate-in-public stance to making an impromptu proposal – replete with incremental concessions – and publishing it on the Internet for all and sundry to have at it.

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That strategy is not without risk – it tends to contradict the we're-being-flexible message when you publicly try to stuff your negotiating partner into a box.

As Toronto Maple Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul noted peevishly in a tweet: "Wait I thought negotiating publicly is unfair to the process? Why should I be surprised."

From the fans' – and pundits' – standpoint, this new era of transparency is to be applauded. But what will it accomplish and where does it come from?

To answer that question requires a little educated guesswork, given the self-imposed muzzle that's been tightly fastened on the 29 owners.

The first point is that optics matter. The owners are getting trounced in the court of public opinion, and it was time to try and seize the initiative, even if their proposal appears more conciliatory than it actually is upon deeper reading.

The second thing, from discussions with several NHL executives over the past few weeks, is there are a number of owners who want this settled – including Canadian franchise owners who make huge dough on hockey.

It's impossible to say authoritatively that the squishes now outnumber the hardliners, but the offer floated Tuesday suggests the owners are at least attempting to break the impasse on a short timeline.

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A beady-eyed observer will also note the league's broadcast and corporate partners are beginning to look at their collective watches – external voices are being heard here as well.

Point the third: The pressure is increasing on both sides as they close in on the de facto deadline for playing an 82-game regular season. The point where the owners can still get a deal on their terms and squeeze in a full schedule will soon pass.

The league is evidently trying to cast itself as the adult in the room (which kind of brings us back to the first point), even if many of what are being sold as concessions are simply decisions to abandon initial positions that can be fairly described as outrageous.

In essence, then, the league is aiming for the high ground – even it's taking a chancy route to get there.

There's a reason you don't negotiate in public, doing so gives both sides less room to manoeuvre and erodes good will.

And it's not like Tuesday's offer doesn't have serious flaws from the player standpoint – the biggest of which is taking money out of the NHLPA's pocket in the near term.

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There may be room to work around the monetary issue, but players' union head Don Fehr is no dupe.

He offered a textbook reaction in a letter to players late Tuesday (as first reported by TSN): "We do not yet know whether this proposal is a serious attempt to negotiate an agreement, or just another step down the road. The next several days will be, in large part, an effort to discover the answer to that question."

In other words: We'll see your raise and reraise.

No other reaction could have been expected.

If one zooms out to consider the broader picture, however, at least the owners' apparent willingness to actually negotiate – which was far from obvious until Tuesday – provides an opening to nudge the peanut forward.

The question now is: Will the players accept to negotiate on the basis of the latest proposal, which amounts to them venturing onto the league's turf and accepting its ground rules?

Another card will be turned up shortly, the round of betting that follows will reveal much.

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