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OK, it's probably safe to raise you head again.
All of the verbal shrapnel that accompanied the breakdown in the NHL's labor talks late last week has settled, and the league's owners and players can start to look toward the resumption of negotiations, quite possibly sometime this week.
Just how close the sides are to an agreement is very much a matter of perspective -- NHL Players' Association head Donald Fehr suggested to a press conference in New York that an end to the lockout was imminent, shortly before league officials volunteered that there was absolutely no reason to believe a deal was likely anytime soon -- but it's clear they've made progress on a number of key issues over the course of the negotiations.
It's equally clear that there are several issues that both parties see as critical, which means that unless the players and owners are caught up in the spirit of compromise, the 2012-13 season will remain in jeopardy.
And even though Comissioner Gary Bettman said Thursday that the CBA package the NHL had put in play earlier officially had been yanked off the table, it probably wouldn't take much to get it back into play. At least if the sides get back to talking soon.
A look at issues that shape up as the primary points of contention when negotiations resume:
*** Deputy commissioner Bill Daly came up with one of the most memorable statements of the lockout when he declared contract term limits are the hill on which the league was willing to die. That seems a bit overly dramatic, but it underscores how much the owners want to hold deals to no more than five years (seven, for players woh are re-signing with their current club). The NHLPA, conversely, has offered eight. The league's goal is to save teams from themselves, by preventing them from signing players for a dozen or so years, then structuring the deal in a way to lower the salary-cap hit by lowering the actual salary the player is to be paid in the later years, when he might well be retired. It's unlikely that either side will cave completely on this, so the only way it will be resolved is if both will move to six or seven years.
*** The NHL has offered $300 million to compensate players with existing contracts when the players' share of hockey-related revenues drops from 57 percent to 50 and to allow clubs to exceed the cap ceiling for the first year, but has shown no interest in allowing teams to buy out existing contracts without having them count against the ceiling during the transition to the new deal, or in capping escrow payments then. The league might not be willing to die on this hill, but it certainly sounds as if it is willing to absorb serious wounds defending its position.
*** Working out precisely what should be in the CBA isn't the only challenge; the league and players have significantly different stances on how long the deal should run. The league has proposed 10 years, but is willing to lower that to eight if both sides agree. The NHLPA is countering with eight years, with the option of ending it after six.
So far, the NHL and NHLPA have had only cursory contact since the talks melted down last Thursday, although Daly said late this morning that the sides have had conversations and expect to talk again today.
While no meetings are scheduled yet, a badly needed cooling-off period should be winding down and it is in the interest of all concerned to start negotiating again as soon as one side or the other is willing to discuss moving off a position it has staked out in the talks so far.
There is no imminent threat that a season will be lost for the second time in eight years, but that danger should appear on the horizon before too terribly much longer.
It's in the interest of both sides -- and, more important, the game that binds them -- that they enter any future meetings with as much flexibility as possible.
No one should be surprised that accomplished negotiators like Bettman and Fehr would go to extreme lengths to get the best possible CBA for their constituents.
The hope is that while one side or the other might be perceived as the winner in whatever agreement would be reached in the next few weeks, all concerned will be unqualified losers if the 2012-13 season never begins.
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