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The Globe and Mail

Stalled lockout talks put media in play as leaks surface

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks to reporters following labour talks, Friday, Nov. 9, 2012, in New York.

Louis Lanzano/AP

Talk of compromise in the NHL lockout is finally in the air.

Only instead of coming at the bargaining table, it's leaking out through media in the kind of back-channel dealings that can sometimes occur near the end of these interminable labour disputes.

With mediation failing to produce any progress for a second consecutive day Thursday, one anonymous member of the NHL board of governors provided American all-sports cable network ESPN with the framework for a potential lockout-ending deal.

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Unsurprisingly, it involved essentially splitting the difference on the three most divisive issues.

According to the report, the NHL governor proposed a nine-year collective agreement (with an opt-out after seven years for either side), a six-year limit on player contracts (with an option for eight-year deals for players who have been with a franchise for five years) and a "simple buyout option," where the buyouts money would count against the salary cap.

ESPN also spoke with two players who felt such an offer would be worth a vote of the NHL Players' Association.

The proposal is the kind of common-sense compromise that has been missing throughout a lot of this process and that has likely cost the NHL a longer regular season.

Even if this anonymous proposal eventually prompts a deal, the league is unlikely to be able to play much more than a 48-game season, just as it did in 1994-95, when that lockout ended on Jan. 11, and the puck was dropped nine days later.

That time frame, however, gives both sides another three weeks until they would have to get really serious – which is why they're mired in a standoff.

No one wants to give in early, and not get enough.

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No one wants to budge and risk giving up too much.

The reality of the fight, however, is there's little remaining to fight over. The league has, to a great extent, gotten what it wanted out of these negotiations, and the players have put up the kind of fuss they wanted to to prove they were unified and wouldn't back down.

In the end, whenever games are finally played, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will have cut the players down to a 50-per-cent share from 57 per cent, have term limits on contracts and have a collective agreement that will almost definitely extend past his retirement date. (Unless you envision the 60-year-old commish hanging on past 67.)

The remarkable thing about all of this is that even after dragging the lockout out to near its breaking point, many outside observers believe the league should be able to recover to a large extent.

Ask a marketing or sponsorship analyst plugged into the pro sports world and they'll point out that a shortened season will likely only mean a one-time 25-per-cent or 30-per-cent hit to revenues, especially with sponsorship agreements and TV deals already signed and season's tickets spoken for.

That puts some $2.3-billion (U.S.) or more on the table for the taking if they can get a deal done by mid-January – a pretty appealing carrot, given waiting beyond then could easily result in nothing going to either party.

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If there's long-term damage done to the business, the pain will be shared by both sides, but financially speaking, that can be mitigated by simply having any kind of abbreviated season to wash away the ugliness that's occurred the past three or four months.

Fans, history has shown, have short memories.

At this point, any outcome other than a jam-packed half-season doesn't make any sense, not with so many involved able to forecast the endgame here.

As one player remarked after seeing the ESPN story Thursday: "It's funny that their proposal is just more toward the middle from the one we gave the NHL [last week]. What a concept."

The only question is when do those at the heart of the talks see that and will that be in time for them to realize the c-word – compromise – isn't such a bad thing?

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