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NHL lockout produced plenty of frustration behind the scenes

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, right, and deputy commissioner Bill Daly and speak to reporters on Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012, in New York. The NHL has rejected the players' latest offer for a labor deal and negotiations have broken off at least until the weekend. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Mary Altaffer

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NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, right, and deputy commissioner Bill Daly and speak to reporters on Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012, in New York. The NHL has rejected the players' latest offer for a labor deal and negotiations have broken off at least until the weekend. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Mary Altaffer

NEW YORK, N.Y. - The only thing that came close to matching the frustration of hockey fans during the NHL lockout was the mostly private emotions of the people in charge of negotiating the deal.

A lockout that spanned 113 days before a tentative deal was reached early Sunday morning rarely produced public evidence of the stress it created behind the scenes.

One telling exception came on Dec. 6, arguably the most unusual day of the lockout. After NHL Players' Association executive director Donald Fehr told reporters a deal was close—prematurely, as it turns out—commissioner Gary Bettman responded by airing his frustration with the process.

It was no secret to those close to the process that Bettman and other league executives had grown exasperated by their counterparts at the union. Among the biggest complaints? An inability to start meetings on time or respond to specific requests—as was seen when talks went off the rails in December.

"Today we were expecting an answer (to our proposal), a yes or a no," Bettman told reporters that day. "And our instruction from ownership was, if you get the yes, we can proceed and try and get the pension (issue) wrapped up and do the other things—and if the answer was no, then there was no point in continuing the discussions.

"We were told we would get together at noon, 2, 4 ... at 5 or 6 o'clock, (deputy commissioner) Bill (Daly) and (outside counsel) Bob Batterman went over to find out whether or not it was yes or no. It wasn't intended to be a negotiating session. We would then come back together if the answer was yes. And the answer wasn't yes."

It was among the more telling moments that played out in public.

But the distrust went both ways between two sides who have been pre-conditioned to fight with one another. Rather than being a forgotten battle from the past, the lockout that cancelled the entire 2004-05 season seemed to shape these negotiations.

In hindsight, it's probably not surprising U.S. federal mediator Scot L. Beckenbaugh was a key figure in getting a resolution. He shuttled between the groups and helped set the table for the 16-hour session a day later that ended with the tentative deal.

In brief comments, Bettman credited the mediator with bridging a divide between the sides.

"I would be remiss if we didn't thank Scot Beckenbaugh for his assistance in the mediation process," he said.

The union was equally complimentary of a man who failed to help the two sides resolve their issues eight years earlier. This time around he played a major role in getting the game back on the ice.

"Scot was great for a number of reasons," said Winnipeg Jets defenceman Ron Hainsey, a key member of the union's negotiating team. "When it got to points you didn't know what to do next, you could go to him and talk to him about it and there was a way to work your ideas through a third party who was really able to help the process."

It was certainly a process that needed the help.

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