Posted: Thursday September 13, 2012 2:00PM ; Updated: Thursday September 13, 2012 7:19PM
Allan Muir
Allan Muir>INSIDE THE NHL

NHL CBA hope vanishes in blizzard of words and numbers

Story Highlights

Thursday's gloomy press events were enough to snuff my flickering optimism

Don Fehr saying the salary cap may be on the table suggests a long lockout

Unless they're willing to go nuclear, the players have a lousy hand to play

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NHL players sound off
Source:SI
The NHL Players Union made their case in New York on Thursday as the league's labor unrest continues.
Penguins star Sidney Crosby at the NHLPA meeting in New York
Sidney Crosby said he feels that the NHL has had a lockout in the works from the get-go.
Mary Altaffer/AP
NHL CBA Talks 2012
Features And Analysis

I'm not what you'd call your classic glass half full-type personality.

Still, I was willing to admit there was a faint flicker of hope shining under the door behind which Wednesday's meetings between the NHL and NHLPA were held.

It wasn't much. Just a glimmer suggesting that the two sides were making an effort with the Sept. 15 deadline just days away. A little give here, a little give there. You know, negotiating.

But then came Thursday's pair of afternoon press conferences that saw both sides chomping down on the pins before lobbing grenades at the other -- a trick the avuncular union boss Don Fehr turns much more neatly than the sanctimonious Gary Bettman  and then tossing around a blinding array of numbers that might have made sense to a keener mathematical mind, but reminded me of Mark Twain's three types of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.

If any hope survived that rhetorical bombardment it was finally and fully snuffed, first by Fehr (video) and a large group of apparently cottage-bound players, including Sidney Crosby (video), then by Bettman (video) in gloomy press events that made it clear that the league will lock out its players come the stroke of 12 on Saturday night.

And going by Fehr's surprise announcement that the salary cap could be on the table, a quick resolution is not the smart money bet.

For all the talk yesterday about retaining the current definition of Hockey-Related Revenue (HRR) and moving the player share to 49 percent of the pie, or lengthening a proposal to five years and eliminating the snapback to 57 percent in year three, we still have two sides that are looking to solve the same problem with fundamentally different approaches.

And that's why we're not getting anywhere until one or the other stops negotiating off their own proposal and abandons something they now hold precious.

Listening to Fehr roll out his greatest hits at New York's Marriott Marquis, it appears that the players are unwilling to leap off their philosophical ledge any time soon, thank you very much.

"The players very much want to reach an agreement, provided that it's one which is fair and which is equitable and treats them appropriately," he said (again and again).

"[A lockout is] not a requirement. It's not something anybody has to do."

"The perception we have sometimes is that all they're interested in talking about is in salary reductions."

"The players want to find an agreement that stabilizes the industry and gets us out of the cycle we're in."

None of these talking points are new, which reinforces how entrenched the players are. They like the current agreement just fine, but understand they're going to lose something in these talks, so they're willing to accept a "shared sacrifice" as long as the price they pay directly addresses the disparities between franchise markets.

It's a noble and even sensible position. Imaginative and creative and, as Sidney Crosby later mentioned, it proves that the players are willing to work in "partnership" with the owners.

The problem here is that the owners have ditched the "partnership" pretense that was so convenient during the last lockout. This time, they're looking for a cash grab because, well, the NBA and NFL got sweet new deals, so they want one, too.

Bettman, who revealed that his course of action had earned a unanimous vote of support at the afternoon's Board of Governors meeting, isn't in any rush to change his position, either.

In fact, he was quick to defend the league's original offer, saying it was consistent with what the other league's offered and was needed to give the teams a chance to address the rising costs of business.

After all, massage therapists and jet fuel aren't getting any cheaper.

After that line drew smirks from the wags in attendance, Bettman rebounded with a very salient point: "Even a brief lockout will cost more in terms of lost salary and wages than what we're proposing to do."

The thing is, he's probably right. While there are a number of meaningful contract-based issues still to be addressed, there might be a middle ground approach that gets both sides back to work before either starts losing real money.

The flexibility displayed by the league with its hastily constructed offer on Wednesday suggests a deal is there to be made. If they can get to 49 percent off the cuff, it seems fair to assume they could get to something like a 50/50 or maybe even a 52-48 split in favor of the union with a little more cajoling. Given what the NFL and NBA recently negotiated with their players, that's probably the best result the NHLPA can really hope for.

That won't be an easy pill to swallow, especially now when brotherhood is high and paychecks aren't being missed. But to paraphrase a tweet from my SI.com colleague Adrian Dater, the decision facing the players is fairly clear: Take a haircut off those salaries now, or hold onto 100 percent of zero. Because that's the only way this thing plays out. It's not about big ideas. It's about eating a smaller slice of the pie. Accept the loss of some percentage to escrow-- which they may or may not get back, based on the success of the season -- or risk losing it all, with no hope of ever having it returned.

It's not fair to players who negotiated deals in good faith and have every right to expect to be paid every penny that's coming to them. But fairness, boldness and unity won't carry the day. The big stick will, as it always does.

Fehr hinted at what theirs might be. We can only hope that putting the cap back on the table was a spur-of-the-moment threat, and not a weapon they're seriously intending to draw. Yahoo's Nick Cotsonika tweeted that David Backes, a member of the NHLPA negotiating committee, said it hadn't been discussed as an option. That's reassuring. If the PA puts the cap in play, we'll see a sequel to John Carter before we see NHL hockey.

Unless they're willing to go nuclear, the players have a lousy hand. They may be the gate attraction, but in the end they're replaceable parts. While they come and go, ownership stays. It's their game. And it's their playing field.

There's only one way this ends, today, tomorrow or some point in the future: the players abandon their idealism and take a cut at or slightly above 50 percent. The sooner they come to that realization, the better.

Because for all the numbers that are being thrown around, they have to understand this: Billionaires can outlast millionaires 100 percent of the time.

That's one statistic that doesn't lie.

Hackel: What stands between the NHL, players
Source:SI
Stu Hackel speaks with Maggie Gray about the remaining obstacles the NHL players and owners need to overcome before they reach an agreement on collective bargaining.

 
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