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Taking a break from bargaining in NHL

A calm settled over the NHL's brewing labour storm one day after negotiations were untracked in spectacular fashion.

The league and NHL Players' Association took a step back Friday to evaluate where they stand and start charting a path forward in negotiations. They have yet to set a date to resume talks, but know they'll have to return to the table soon with the window to save a partial season narrowing.

Despite the fact that three days of negotiations ended with some personal public jabs between the sides, commissioner Gary Bettman balked at the notion a lack of trust with NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr was keeping them from closing a deal.

"There's no reason for anybody to suggest that trust is an issue," Bettman said Thursday night. "Listen, collective bargaining is hard stuff and sometimes it's made even harder depending on the goals and objectives that people have and organizations have.

"But the fact is you have professionals in the room."

The 12th week of the lockout was filled with spectacular highs and lows.

Optimism soared on Tuesday when four new owners joined the process and met well into the night with players, leading some close to the situation to believe that an agreement was at hand. Tempers flared during another marathon session Wednesday that saw the sides exchange offers and move closer together.

Then, on Thursday, Fehr handed over a comprehensive proposal to the NHL and told reporters that the sides had moved so close on key issues that a deal appeared to be imminent. Soon after, he returned to the conference room to say there had been a development -- "it's not a positive one" -- and that deputy commissioner Bill Daly had left a voicemail with his brother, Steve Fehr, notifying the union that the league was rejecting the proposal and taking its own offer off the table.

It was a turn of events unlike anything the Fehr brothers had ever seen during the decades they spent working for the baseball players union.

"Not only is it unusual, I would be hard pressed to think of anything comparable in my experience earlier and anybody else's that I'm aware of," said Steve Fehr, the NHLPA's special counsel.

To top things off, Bettman and Daly then held a 30-plus minute press conference where the commissioner was uncharacteristically angry. Among the shots he took at Fehr was questioning the union leader's motives for raising hopes after making the proposal.

"I'm not sure that spinning us all into an emotional frenzy over 'maybe we're close and we're going to be playing hockey tomorrow' (is productive)," said Bettman. "It's terribly unfair to our fans and it's unfair to this process. We're going to take a deep breath and look back at where we are and what needs to be accomplished."

There was no contact between the sides on Friday as both took some time to cool off.

The breakdown in talks was bitterly disappointing for both players and owners, particularly after the week started with such promise. Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby was among the players who attended the meetings and he expressed frustration after returning home on Friday.

"This stuff is getting ridiculous, (losing) all these games," Crosby told reporters. "I'm here to play hockey, I'm not here to negotiate. I support the players. I witnessed how hard guys worked and how bad they want this to work.

"But to see this happen, it's terrible. It makes everyone look bad."

Progress has undeniably been made despite the fact a deal wasn't signed.

The NHL offered US$300 million in deferred payments to help ease the transition from a system where players received 57 per cent of revenues to one where they get 50 per cent. It also backed off on proposed changes to unrestricted free agency, entry-level deals and salary arbitration.

However, Daly said the sides remain divided on three issues: the length of the CBA, a rule would that would limit player contracts at five years and the NHLPA's desire to see compliance buyouts included as another way to help teams reduce payroll and get under the salary cap.

When negotiations eventually resume, those will undoubtedly be the key issues.

"The foundation is there," said Crosby. "I don't think those talks were for nothing."

The Canadian Press


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