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As noise increases, slow progress in NHL lockout

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Amid the rhetoric, both sides in the NHL labor dispute appear to be getting on the same page.

NHLPA Executive Director Don Fehr
NHLPA Executive Director Don Fehr
Bruce Bennett

While the NHL and NHLPA have taken their sweet time in looking to solve their labor dispute, after Wednesday's developments, it finally it appears the two sides are getting on the same page. Or at least on the same agreement.

The NHL didn't accept the NHLPA's first proposal since October. That wasn't unexpected, despite some raised hopes that they would. When the details of the offer began to leak out while the union made its presentation - a practice the NHLPA wasn't thrilled with last month - it became clear that there still is a gap between the two sides.

The important part of the rejected proposal is the NHLPA's move from asking for a set dollar amount for salaries each season -- as it did in its last offer -- to a percentage-based offer, which was in line with the NHL proposals to date.

The two different frameworks couldn't really coexist, and the two sides had to eventually settle on either money or percentages. The NHLPA finally came over to the NHL-designed framework, which eventually will pave the way to agreement.

The rhetoric between the two sides has gotten heated in the last few days, but that is a natural reaction considering the mounting cost of this lockout for both players and owners over the passing days.

While last week's suggestion by the NHL that the process take a two-week break prompted the NHLPA to make an offer this week, it still seems like the urgency isn't there yet for either side.

The league is expected to take another of the players' paychecks off the table on Friday, cancelling all scheduled games through December 15, as well as the league's scheduled All-Star Game in Columbus.

However, the problem with the increasing rhetoric and talk of brinksmanship is that it tends to cloud the issue at hand.

Player disgust in the form of Tweets and interviews definitely seems to be on the rise as the NHLPA loses more money. Capitals defenseman Roman Hamrlik - a veteran of all three NHL lockouts - said in a Czech interview that he was wondering where NHLPA executive director Don Fehr expects to make up the approximately $425 million the players have lost in salaries so far.

It's important to remember that the key point in this dispute is going to be - and is always going to be - the percentage split between the players and owners, the magic 50-50 number. While the owners are, for the moment, putting the clamps down on contractual issues - age of free agency, arbitration rights, length of contracts - the key is that the split determines how much money the owners get, the contract terms are a matter of how much they have to spend is distributed.

The contract issues are a much bigger issues for the players than the owners, and it's important to remember that every piece of leverage in this high-stakes game is crucial. Certainly, the owners want to limit the length of contracts and try to retain players longer before they hit unrestricted free agency, but they're also not going to completely shelve a season to get a win on that relatively minor issue.

The biggest question that is yet to be determined is what kind of "make whole" agreement is made. While the NHLPA wants the full value of contracts in play and at least some of the money lost to cancelled games in the lockout, the NHL is willing to approach full value with a pro-rated pay for the season.

The length of the season is also going to be a factor. Friday would have been the Capitals' 20th game of the season. Canceling through Dec. 15 would officially wipe the first 30 games off the schedule, leaving 52 games left. More importantly to the players, that leaves 63 percent of their salaries left. Around $600 million would have been officially wiped off the slate.

Now, the 2012-13 schedule released over the summer merely contains a suggestion of home dates, is set to be reworked and will likely only involve teams inside each conference. However, the length of the schedule could put at least some money back on the table for the players. Most likely, the players will get some games back on dates normally reserved for playoff games, but it is very unlikely the owners will agree to compensate players money for games scrubbed from the schedule.

It's important to remember that the games already lost - while depriving owners of gate revenue - do offer owners a cost savings. The early portion of the schedule is the least profitable for many teams, as arenas are less-than-full, but players are paid the same amount. A compressed schedule offers owners more bang for their buck: fewer home dates with the players only paid for games that are played.

And, in the end, it's important to remember that 2004-05, the salary cap was a huge issue for the players to accept. Both sides did not have substantial talks until December, and the owners were willing to scrap a season to implement it. This time, the amount of money between the two sides - which Fehr put at $182 million - isn't likely to have the NHL put out to pasture for what's left of last year's $3.3 billion pie.

So, what is the end game now that both sides are on the same page?

After Wednesday, it seems that the owners and players still aren't really set to end this. Quite honestly, it seems that both sides feel they have more to gain by out-waiting the other.

The likely end game will come when either the NHL declares that Gary Bettman is empowered by the league's Board of Governors to cancel the season, or the BOG sets a date themselves of a point of no return. While the 1994-95 lockout ended on Jan. 11 - allowing a 48-game schedule to be played - and kept talking until Feb. 16 in 2005, it is expected that the league to push up the date sooner than then, in part to try to shake a settlement out of the players and end the dispute.

Not surprisingly, the NBA talked about a lost season less than a month into its lockout last fall, and that helped push both sides to settle. While the NHLPA likely would question an early drop-dead date, the question would become whether the players would stake an entire year's pay on that feeling.

While the rhetoric of over two months of slow, deliberate negotiations is creating a glum feeling around many associated with the sport, it is important to step back and look at the big picture. While the NHL and NHLPA will have their work cut out for them in terms of rebuilding the trust with fans upset with the lockout, it does appear that eventually, the two sides will come to an agreement to save a portion of the 2012-13 season.

So, while games continue to come off the calendar and everyone involved gets a bit wearier, it does appear that this could be the beginning of the end. It's a process that is moving slower than everyone would like, but while the noise and rhetoric only figure to get louder until the deal is signed, it does appear a CBA is slowly coming within reach.