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Time to break the cycle in NHL lockout mess

The good news is they are talking about scheduling negotiations for the middle of this week. The bad news is they cannot agree on when to meet, or what they should talk about.

So officially, according to an e-mail message Monday from NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, there is "nothing planned." However, hope remains NHL labour talks will restart Wednesday, perhaps, in New York.

That is the frustrating part of the latest lockout. Both sides admit there is a deal to be made, but neither is willing to be the first to say: let's negotiate from that point.

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That point was reached last week, when the NHL owners made a surprise offer and the NHL Players' Association responded with three counter-offers. For the first time, the players acknowledged a 50-50 share of revenue is the goal, but, so far, that's as far as it went.

One gets the feeling that if someone could grab each side by the scruff of the neck and sit them at a table with no chance of leaving for at least 12 hours, the lockout could end. (After all, if you total the time spent actually negotiating in this dispute, it probably wouldn't come to much more than 12 hours.)

Most of the important negotiating sessions have followed the same pattern: one side makes its case and the other walks out in a huff a few minutes later. Then, the duelling media leaks and press conferences start.

This is simply inconceivable in an industry that continues to spin record revenue, despite a world economy that remains stuck in a recession. After seven years spent pulling its business out of the periphery of the professional sports industry, these people are acting like they don't care if the NHL drives away enough fans to once again make it an fringe league.

The answer will have to come from the moderates on both sides. Many of them are quietly agonizing, wondering if they need to start putting even more pressure on negotiators to get moving.

Both sides know this is the key week to get a new collective agreement – even if the Thursday deadline to make a deal or see the possibility of a full 82-game regular season go up in smoke was another arbitrary one set by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

But it is a deadline grounded in reality.

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While there is still some flexibility, unless the players and owners make serious progress this week, there simply will not be enough time to shoehorn 82 games into the calendar. This would allow the NHL to finish the Stanley Cup final by the end of June – an outrageously late date to be sure – and still give the players some semblance of rest between games.

The league is insisting if negotiations are to continue, the NHLPA has to negotiate based on the owners' 50-50 offer of last week. But the owners are also sending signals they are willing to make at least some concessions on their "make-whole" proposal, which is the biggest issue with the players.

Union, quite rightly, says it wants all existing contracts to be paid in full. Why else would the owners have signed all those players just before the lockout, the NHLPA asks? (Okay, the cynics will say, the owners had no intention of honouring them, but that has the nasty smell of collusion about it.)

For their part, the owners say they are willing to see that the players get their money. The problem is, they want to do it by taking more money from the players in the later years of a new agreement. When the players point this out, the owners counter that by insisting they be paid in full, the players are sticking to an unrealistic 56- or 57-per-cent share of league revenue.

Sensible people would say the solution is to start a new agreement, with a players' share slightly higher than 50 per cent (53 anyone?) and work it down to 50 within two or three years. That way, the escrow effect that lowers contracted salaries is lessened so the players take a haircut on their contracts they can live with and the owners get to the magic numbers of 50-50.

But the moderates need to get louder for that to happen.

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More

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