Top Shelf: Lockout looms as both sides refuse to blink

3:26 PM, Sep 13, 2012   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Like planets locked into the gravitational pull of the sun, it seems like the NHL's owners and players are unable to deviate from their current paths.

The owners are determined to win big in the collective bargaining agreement, just like they did when the labor fight cost the NHL the 2005-06 season but did result in a salary cap being instituted.

The players, on the other hand, are just as determined not to get stuck with the short straw again when a deal is finally done.

Now, with only a few days left in the life of the old CBA the league is headed for a lockout before any meaningful negotiations have taken place.

Sure, leaders from both sides have met numerous times but those powwows were used more for making demands than acknowledging the fact that some concessions eventually will have to be made. So with little in the way of meaningful progress having been achieved throughout the talks, it seems more and more likely that a lockout will begin Saturday at midnight.

Obviously, the word "lockout" has an extremely negative connotation in the world of professional sports. It's even worse when applied to the NHL considering less than a decade has passed since the league lost an entire season to labor strife. About 10 years before that another lockout led to the shortened 48-game season in 1994-95. For die-hard NHL fans, the fact that league could go down this road again is all too real.

Currently there is no evidence to suggest that things are as bad now as they were seven years ago when the owners and players began to stare each other down for a whole season. In fact, for a long time it has appeared like a lockout was inevitable considering the NHL Player's Association has downplayed the Sept. 15 deadline time and time again.

Maybe once the league's deadline passes, we'll finally see some progress made in the negotiations. After all, even if no deal is made by midnight on Saturday, there will be time enough to bridge the gap and get the season underway when the regular season is scheduled to start on Oct. 11.

The fact is, the Sept. 15 deadline means a great deal more to the owners than it does to the players. Commissioner Gary Bettman and his group of owners will almost certainly have to push the players past Oct. 11 to put a significant amount of pressure on them to do a deal.

With over 280 NHL players in New York this week to show their support for the union, it seems at least one side is on the same page. However, so little is known about where the owners stand in relation to each other that it's difficult to gauge how committed they all are to getting what they want out of the next CBA.

Salary rollbacks seem to be the owner's biggest wish, but it's hard to say how committed the owner of a big-market team will be to making that happen compared to those from smaller cities.

Of course, since individual owners have refused to comment on the labor strife and instead have let Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly serve as their mouthpieces, the rest of us are left in the dark about where the owners stand as a unit. Since the owners ultimately hold the key to getting a deal done, knowing so little about what they are actually thinking during these negotiations leaves us with a sizeable blind spot in judging how much progress still needs to be made.

Here's what we do know. The league originally demanded the players to drop their percentage of Hockey-Related Revenue (HRR) from 57 percent -- the number from the current CBA -- to 43 percent. Since then the league has improved its offer to one that begins with a 49 percent cut for the players before rolling back to 47 percent. The NHLPA's last offer was for the players to ultimately reduce their take to 52.7 percent.

From all the indications we've received from Bettman and NHLPA head Donald Fehr neither of those positions is amenable to either side. It seems unlikely that a better proposal will be put forth by the owners or players before the deadline arrives on Saturday.

Still, both Bettman and Fehr have at times put a positive spin on things over the last few days, but even the most hopeful of hockey fans have to be dubious of the chances a new agreement could be reached before midnight on Saturday.

"The players want to find a way to make an agreement. They want to negotiate until we do," Fehr said at a Thursday news conference.

Fehr was also encouraged that the sides were finally agreeing on what constituted HRR, saying "we at least appear to be talking about the same definitions, and that's good."

On Wednesday, Bettman said that his side's latest offer was "intended to lead to a deal before the weekend," but the commissioner also said that deal would be "off the table" if the Sept. 15 deadline passes.

However, on Thursday, Bettman stated all 30 owners voted unanimously that a season could not begin without a new CBA and that the players will be locked out if no deal is made come Saturday's deadline.

Sadly, we are mere days away from the official start of the lockout and there is no good reason to be optimistic that this stalemate is close to being over.

As Bob Dylan once sang, "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there."

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