Just cancel the NHL season already!

Photo Credit: Veronica Henri/Toronto Sun

“Today is not a good day.”

That’s what Donald Fehr expressed in a press conference after negotiations with the NHL broke off Thursday afternoon.

His words echoed throughout the country as many people have sadly realized that the likelihood of a full NHL season is essentially nil. The chance of any hockey being played in 2012-13 is only slightly higher than that.

Fans had reason to be optimistic after Gary Bettman and the owners made a surprise proposal earlier in the week, even though most fans understood that the proposal was going to be rejected by the players’ association. What gave people optimism was the possibility that the two sides would at least be able to find some common ground in the proposal and begin negotiations in earnest.

Unfortunately, according to Bettman, the two sides “aren’t even speaking the same language.” Although the players presented the league with three distinct offers, Bettman believes that none “even begin to approach 50-50.”

The two sides really aren’t speaking the same language, because in the players’ offers there are concessions made that would see their share drop close to 50 percent in either years three or five, depending on industry growth, or immediately, provided the NHL owners agreed to pay the existing players contracts in full.

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The fact that Bettman outright rejected these three offers, telling the union that their earlier deal was as good as it was going to get, shows that our optimism was for naught. The owners have no intention of negotiating; their offer was simply a public relations move, meant to make the players look like the bad guys.

In reality, nothing has changed. Although frustrations with both sides are undoubtedly mounting, the owners are still losing the PR battle. It doesn’t matter that they offered a proposal that would allow for an 82-game schedule; if they aren’t willing to negotiate off of it there is little reason for public perception to shift.

It’s sad that the league’s offer was nothing more than PR, because the fact that the NHLPA has shown a willingness to decrease their share of revenue to 50 percent means there is hope for an agreement, it just will take some negotiating to get there. It will take concessions from the league (perhaps on revenue sharing or free agency) and it is likely the players’ share of revenue will slide towards midway mark rather than being implemented immediately.

However, today shows that the league is not willing to negotiate. It seems like the NHL is only interested in an agreement in which the players unilaterally agree to the league’s terms. Terms that include major concessions in every area of the CBA.

Essentially, the league is holding hockey hostage and they hope the players will cave. It’s a nice thought, but this isn’t Fehr’s first rodeo; he went through labor wars with MLB. Accordingly, it doesn’t seem like this stalemate will end anytime soon.

Now that talks have broken off, it’s unclear when they will resume. It’s true they can discuss secondary issues — and Fehr himself said that clarifying the definition of HRR could be the next topic — but the fact that the two sides are so far apart (at least according to Bettman) is concerning.

During the 2004-05 lockout, when talks broke off in September and the two sides were worlds apart, negotiations didn’t resume until December, at which time the NHLPA tabled their first official offer. By that time the season was essentially lost, and another two month stretch of zero talks ensured the NHL would be the first major sports league to cancel an entire season.

This time, at least the two sides have continued talking throughout October, and both sides have made multiple proposals. So at least both sides know where the other stands. It’s now about bridging that huge divide between them.

More importantly, last time the NHL and NHLPA were nowhere close. They weren’t even reading the same book, let alone the same page. The only shred of hope from today is that at least now there is common ground: both sides are reading the same book, even though Gary Bettman is stubbornly insisting his is in French.

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