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The Globe and Mail

Unstoppable force meets immovable object in NHL labour talks

It was a day of duelling news conferences, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman reiterated Thursday that unless there's an unexpected 11th-hour settlement with the NHL Players' Association, the league will lock out its players at midnight on Saturday when the collective agreement expires.

According to Bettman, the NHL board of governors voted unanimously to pursue a lockout for one simple reason – they believe that the players' share of the overall league revenues is set too high at 57 per cent, and they want that changed.

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"We believe as a league, we are paying out too much money," said Bettman, who also noted that just because the players earned that much in the last agreement doesn't guarantee a "perpetual entitlement" to that share.

Some hours earlier, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr spoke at length, but mostly covered a lot of familiar ground as well. Fehr stressed why his side's proposal in the stalled negotiations is right for the game and said that after the give-backs the players made in the last agreement, they were not prepared for another round of rollbacks this time around.

The players meeting was mostly a briefing, or in Sidney Crosby's words, a chance to "understand the dynamic of what you are standing up for." Predictably, Fehr was flanked at the podium by a who's who of NHL stars – Crosby, Zdeno Chara, Henrik Lundqvist and Daniel Alfredsson were all framed in the shot for most of his talk, in what was designed as a show of strength and solidarity.

"If it comes to [a lockout], it's a choice that's being made," Fehr said. "It's not a requirement."

Both sides presented a dense jumble of numbers to support their respective financial positions, and what became immediately clear is how differently they view the future in terms of revenue projections.

The NHLPA believes that growth can continue along the same pace as it did during the past seven years, when they NHL grew to a $3.3-billion business from a $2.1-billion business and player salaries escalated by an average of about $1-million over the term of this expiring labour contract.

Bettman suggested the NHLPA projections "far exceeds what is realistic" – and for proof, said much of the revenue growth could be attributed to the increasing value of the Canadian dollar; the one-time move of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg; and the new U.S. television contract with NBC.

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On July 13, 2005, or when the two sides ended the 2004-05 lockout, the Canadian dollar was worth 82.84 cents in U.S. dollars. Since then, it's gone up about 20 per cent. It is hard to imagine any economic scenario under which the Canadian dollar could rise by that amount again.

The two sides exchanged offers Wednesday, but neither proposal advanced the process much. With no new talks scheduled, it meant Thursday's primary purpose for both sides was to put the most positive slant possible on their respective positions.

The NHLPA's offer hinges largely on limiting salary-cap increases over the next three seasons, plus an enhanced revenue-sharing system that would permit the players to retain the full value of their current contracts.

Under the NHL's latest counterproposal, the players' cut of gross revenues would shrink to 49 per cent from 57 per cent in the first year of a six-year deal.

Until they get past that essential divide – the owners want the players to take less money; and the players want to keep all they're scheduled to earn – it is hard to imagine the two sides reaching an agreement anytime soon.

"There's been a lot of discussion back and forth about us not talking the same language," Bettman said of the changes that were included in the owners' latest offer. "We tried to simplify the language."

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Bettman used his strongest language to date Thursday to outline the NHL's position.

Fehr, by contrast, took a more conciliatory tone. He played up his rural Kansas roots, how he saw the chance to represent NHL players as "an extraordinary privilege" and how, in the past 18 hours, he got "a real sense of the unity, the commitment, and the participation and the understanding and the knowledge that these players have."

"Hockey is poised to really move, over the next three or four years to a place where it fundamentally hasn't been before," Fehr said. "The question is, whether the disagreement we're having now is going to screw that up."

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