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NHL finally getting serious at bargaining table

Donald Fehr is leading the NHLPA through this work stoppage. (Getty Images)

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Donald Fehr is leading the NHLPA through this work stoppage. (Getty Images)

At this point in the current NHL lockout, the phrase “cautious optimism” is constantly being tossed around by pundits and off-the-record league sources. In many regards, it’s easy to see where that positivity comes from: no longer are we talking about the “nuclear options” of putting the league’s salary cap and guaranteed player contracts on the negotiating table. No more are hockey fans and media being subjected to publicly pouty figures from either side, or to paint-by-numbers press releases. The Silly Season appears to be over.

Still, there’s a reason why people painfully familiar with this process aren’t quite ready to break out the bubbly just yet. As we saw in the lost 2004-05 season, you underestimate the NHL’s ability to undermine itself at your own peril. So I won’t be completely confident the league will return until the deal is officially ratified by both sides. But I do know this – if there is a 60-70-game season, it will have happened (a) because the players’ association under Donald Fehr was far more creative and, yes, functional than ever before; and (b) because owners finally chose to come to their senses after initially puffing out their collective chest and attempting a bully job on the PA.

That brings me to arguably the most frustrating question I continue to get throughout this needless process – “why didn’t both sides get to this stage in the summer or last season?” The answer is quite simple: the league didn’t want to. As recently as the 2012 All-Star Game in Ottawa, commissioner Gary Bettman never claimed time was of the essence. He and the owners who give him his marching orders made it clear they were happy to give PA boss Don Fehr time to acclimate to his new surroundings. Time only became an issue for the league when the players didn’t leap to their feet with big, beaming smiles on their faces to accept Bettman’s deeply insulting opening offer.

That’s why it has taken the NHL this long to return to the precipice of sanity. I accept without reservation the argument that no negotiation begins with one side’s best offer as its first offer, but I also believe an approach that included delicacy, nuance and a remembrance of history could have made this a far less agonizing process.

The fact the owners looked at a union soundly trounced eight years ago – one that hired the preeminent sports labor lawyer of his generation to help them rebuild – and thought the best tact to take was an across-the-board aggressive approach is all the evidence you should need of the arrogance permeating the NHL’s corridors of power. Bettman and his negotiating team could have reached out with some sort of olive branch; instead, they sharpened the edge of that branch and attempted to mercilessly beat the union with it. In every CBA area, they took just about the most extreme position possible.

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That crucial strategic error in negotiations set back the process immensely and galvanized the players to remain strong. It made Bettman more toxic among players than ever before – when the classy likes of Teemu Selanne and Jonathan Toews are openly ripping you, you’ve got a serious image problem – and fortified their resolve. However, to their credit, the PA kept returning to the bargaining table seeking different solutions not only to solve the owners’ current issues, but to ensure the game wouldn’t be dragged through the mud again seven or eight years from now during the next labor talks.

That willingness to seek an end to this ongoing disgrace has not been shown by owners until very recently and still may not be there to the degree it needs to in order to get the league back in business soon. All of the league’s initial offers carried with them the empty notion it was making “concessions,” when in reality, it was making them off that first scorched-earth bid. Meanwhile, it was asking the players to make their concessions based on the expired labor deal. For that fact alone, players deserve zero blame for not rushing to throw concession after concession at Bettman & Co. That they have taken a gigantic cut in their share of the pie when the business has never been better is all the relenting they should’ve done.

If a deal is completed in the relative near future, there should be none of the same outbreak of false equivalence that has masked honest debate about this lockout from the get-go. Yes, it always takes two to tango, but when one dance partner decides to grab the other by the nether region and drag them along the disco floor, the grabbed dancer doesn’t deserve an equal amount of criticism for stepping off and waiting for a more respectful partner.

An honest appraisal of this awful, embarrassing situation must conclude that one side in the battle has proven their love of the game more than the other. And that side – the players’ side – ought to be loudly and consistently commended for it.

Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com.

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