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NHL end-around all part of the negotiating battle

Some of the NHL’s top players have NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr’s back

Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS

So the NHL is tired of talking to "a baseball guy" and trying to take its message directly to the players, looking for a sympathetic ear.

Such an end-around isn't unusual – after all, it happened during the last lockout – but it usually comes as part of an endgame strategy.

Are we that far along already? Maybe.

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But this time around it is as much to do with (a) testing the players' resolve and (b) frustration with NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr's dour consistency as anything.

It's also a sign the league is getting a little anxious – and that a compromise that can end this lockout could actually not be as far away as the rhetoric suggests.

What the NHL is really doing here is fishing for weak points in the membership: players who really don't want to miss paycheques and are willing to consider the not quite 50-50 offer on the table.

It doesn't sound like they found all that many.

The reality is that the NHLPA membership is just about as militant as Fehr right now – or to be more precise, they're helping drive the bus as much as possible.

Players are standing firm mainly on the basis of wanting to be paid in full for their existing contracts, something that will only be possible with a 54 or 55 per cent share in the first year of any new contract.

So when GMs and other team personnel began contacting players with a league memo in hand directing what they could and couldn't say, many of them quickly contacted the union to report the issue.

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"If the NHL's intent... was to sow seeds of dissension, it has zero chance of success," one member on the players' side said Tuesday. "It actually shows owners are getting desperate and grasping at straws."

Either that or a calculated move to see how much more there's left to squeeze.

The funny thing is that, if you look closely at what's on the table right now, the two sides are fairly close together financially – especially toward the end of the deal when they both are very close to 50-50 in every plausible scenario.

So while there is talk the NHLPA could file an unfair labour practices claim over the talking to players issue – something that would obviously spill more bad blood – with the two sides close to a potential agreement, that doesn't appear to (and shouldn't) be the union's next move.

Despite all the handwringing and rhetoric being spewed the past week, there remains a deal to be done here to save a full season.

While NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has put out Nov. 2 publicly as the final day to fit in all 82 games, the actual last possible date to do so could be as much as two weeks later.

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That would obviously mean a condensed season that stretched into late June, just as it did in 1994-95, and the cancelation of the all-star game. It would also likely mean moving the awards, draft and free agency into July, so this "extra" week or two aren't without a cost.

But an agreement will be much more difficult to hammer out if they're dealing with a partial season and partial revenues so moving quickly and being reasonable about how much time remains is vital.

Which means it's time to stop testing each others' resolve, worrying about the PR spin or who's in charge and sitting down to negotiate.

The rest of the hockey world can see where this is going. Surely those in the middle can, too.

And you don't need to end-around what's right in front of you.

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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